Romano Prodi, Pprofessor of economics, European Commission president from 1999 to 2004, and two-time prime minister of Italy, is a friend of Greece. Last October he visited Athens at the invitation of former prime minister Costas Simitis and spoke at a conference event organized by the Costas Simitis Foundation.
The veteran Italian politician talked to Kathimerini from his home in Bologna. Self-isolated, away from friends, children and grandchildren, with his wife of 50 years Flavia Franzoni as his sole companion, he has been carefully observing the recent developments.
How do you feel personally?
I call myself a “political prisoner.” My life has changed. I see nobody except my wife. The pandemic is a very serious issue. The only thing I am doing is reading, reading, reading and reading.
What mistake did Italy make?
We were unlucky to be the first country to be infected in Europe. As soon as the real dimensions were understood, we reacted swiftly. Perhaps we were a little late, two or three days. But think how difficult it is to take the decision to change life of millions of people. Some countries might believe that the problem would have been confined to Italy. But soon all got the same measures. Spain, France and the UK.
Europe is in disarray. What should be done to rescue the European economy?
Europe changes through disasters. But today we see some differences in regard to other crises. In the last financial crisis, you, the Greeks, suffered because of European mistakes and the shortsighted attitudes of Holland and Germany. But you didn’t have many excuses because you made mistakes too. But now no country has responsibility for this crisis. The North-South divide should stop influencing decision-making. If it continues, then the only explanation will be self-interest and lack of solidarity.
Do you support the Eurobond?
Of course I do. Don’t forget that it has been asked for not only by Greece and Italy but also by France. If we don’t share the burden of the crisis now, if there is no solidarity now, when will we ever have solidarity? Without the Eurobond, the European house will be in trouble, not immediately, but it will be in trouble.
It seems that the crisis will exacerbate the already high level of inequality at a global level.
Inequality has been increasing constantly over the last 30 years. And it will continue to increase if we don’t change course. At present, all wealth is concentrated among a small number of technology behemoths and financial giants.
Do you attribute the increase of inequality to the international proliferation of autocratic governance?
Political autocracy is spreading everywhere – China, Russia, Central Asia, the Philippines, Australia, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, the US, Brazil. That’s happening because this increase of disparity between people divides society, leading more and more people toward supporting the bestowal of power on individuals who position themselves outside the traditional rules of liberal democracy. If we don’t see an international agreement for proper taxation and making the financial world behave properly, then I will remain very pessimistic for the future.
Should tax havens be abolished?
Tax havens exist as a consequence of the power wielded by giants of technology and finance. There are tax havens even inside Europe. Ireland and Holland are partly tax havens. Holland is so adamant and tough toward the South because it has secured special clauses that help the country to attract companies’ headquarters and investments like being a half tax haven. Should tax havens be abolished? I think it is necessary but I don’t believe it will happen. Europe cannot do that because such a decision requires unanimity.
Do you think we can print money without facing the danger of inflation?
Certainly we can. The financial architecture is now so robust that there is practically no such danger.
Restrictive measures and quarantines are being compared to the temporary abolition of fundamental citizens rights. Should we make sure to repeat and underline that it is imperative they should be fully restored?
Of course! Fundamental citizens rights are suspended only when there is a human necessity. And now there’s certainly such an issue. There’s pestilence. When this issue gets sorted out, fundamental rights should be fully restored.
As European Commission president, did you ever think that one day the world would face a time like this?
Well, no, I hadn’t anticipated a pandemic. But back in 2003 I had asked for the foundation of a European Health Authority able to coordinate public health policies across Europe. Member-states did not agree.
Are you optimistic the crisis will be short?
I hope it doesn’t last any longer than it lasted in China, in other words, not too long.
China presents itself as setting the example globally for virtually everything.
Exactly. Twenty years ago, during their discussions with us, the Chinese leaders tended to imply that the country might move closer to the democratic model of the West. Today President Xi believes that China sets the example to the world because it achieves better results than the West. This makes me believe that we should strengthen liberal democracy even more.