How pen-pushers have taken over Italian democracy

How pen-pushers have taken over Italian democracy
By Euronews
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We start this edition of Reporter with a guided tour by La Corriere della Sera journalist Sergio Rizzo

“Rome is really the city which sums up all the past and present symbols of power in Italy.

“There is the Pantheon cupola, first century BC. Or the Castel Sant’Angelo, where the Emperor Adriano was buried and where the Church’s fortress was built. Moving on, we find the tower of Montecitorio, on top of the Chamber of Representatives.

“The Columna Antonini stands in front of government headquarters. There you have the Presidency of the Republic.

“One grand yellow building is very significant for the city because it used to be the residency of Giovanni Agnelli, the owner of FIAT.

“And then there’s the grand monument dedicated to King Vittorio Emanuele II, built at the end of the 19th century to celebrate Italy’s unification.

“In this city, power has been exercised continuously for 2767 years,” says Rizzo.

Today, the power in Italy is with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his team of ministers. His government is the third one in little more than two years.

Just like the two previous ones, it is the result of a compromise deal among rival political forces aimed at making necessary reforms to put the Italian economy back on track.

Much has been said about these reforms, but little has been done. It is as if legislation was stuck, or politics had lost the power of making decisions.

“In the last few years, bureaucrats have taken over the legislative process. They are the ones making the law. They write it within the ministries, the law then moves to the parliament where it gets a vote of approval. But before the law can be adopted, further regulation is needed, and that job is done by the same people who wrote the law. This way, parliament’s only job is to ratify what bureaucrats write in the ministries. A situation like this produces huge conflicts of interest,” claims Rizzo.

In the past five years, 480 laws have been passed to change the rules on taxation. Out of these 480, around 60 have simplified the system, while the others have made it even more complex.

And often, as Sergio Rizzo pointed out, a further step is required for the law to be implemented: a regulation written by top-ranking bureaucrats.

The former Vice Minister for Economic Development, Antonio Catricalà, was a member of this select elite for many years, up until a few months ago.

He told euronews: “In many cases, the regulation is necessary because of the technicality of the law, which is extremely complex. In other cases, the regulation is required in order to find a political agreement. Is there a controversy? Representatives in parliament decide that the issue will be dealt with afterward with a regulation. But this doesn’t always happen.”

A parliament unable to take decisions makes the top officials of the public administration even more powerful, endowing them with political responsibility. It is a real takeover, considering that they are not elected and often they do not even have to quit when the government resigns.

“When a minister takes office, he hires a general director for a five-year term. Then, a year and a half later, when the government collapses and a new one, supported by a different political majority, takes its place, the new minister inherits the general director hired by his predecessor. Now the director must choose: he can change political affiliation – and this happens quite frequently amid our bureaucrats – or he can mount a sort of opposition to the new minister,” explained retired former parliamentary advisor Luigi Tivelli.

Italy’s Constitution says that top officials of the public administration must be selected by open competition among the members of the Council of State, the judges of the Administrative Court and a few other exclusive circles: bureaucrats today and judges tomorrow, or vice versa. And this raises questions.

“Often, the state councillor ends up being the judge who applies the law. Because there are laws that he wrote, literally, that he contributed to writing, together with the minister. Then, if he goes back to being a judge, he will make a decision in a courtroom based on the law, which he wrote. And here there is a kind of conflict: the role of the legislator and the role of the judge should always be separated,” said Law Professor Stefano Rodotà.

Since 1889, the Council of State has had its headquarters in the Palazzo Spada, one of the most impressive Baroque buildings in Rome.

In the courtyard, the forced perspective gallery by Francesco Borromini provides an apt metaphor: illusion is power – or is power an illusion in Italian politics? That is the question.

Renzi’s government is trying to do something similar with the bureaucracy as Borromini did with his statue, scaling down the power it has accumulated through the years.

“The new minister can change the top of his administration, the general directors: he has three months to do it. Therefore, saying that he is paralysed because of the situation that he inherited from the past is not entirely correct. Second: in choosing his chief of staff, his chief of cabinet, he has total freedom,” adds Professor Rodotà.

Overwhelming bureaucracy and excessive regulation are holding back reforms. But the problem in Italy gets even worse: often the very rules that should be of utmost importance are lacking: mainly those that divide political activity from private interests.

“If a member of Parliament is not reelected, he can become a lobbyist. That means he can lobby his former colleagues. This is something that happens frequently in Italy, also because the former MP has free access to the Parliament. It’s allowed, it’s not forbidden, but it’s definitely an anomaly of our system,” explained Professor Pier Luigi Petrillo, an expert in lobbying law at Unitelma Sapienza in Rome.

Unlike what happens in most European countries and in others as well, in Italy there is no such a thing as a registry of lobbyists: a factor that makes the system even more opaque and open to corruption.

“The absence of rules with regard to lobbying, in Italy, comes mainly from a political choice. You have to consider that more than 50 draft bills [on regulating lobbying] have been presented to the Chamber and the Senate over the past 40 years and the assembly has discussed not even one of those bills. Politicians have always made their choice very clear. There have also been a couple of government attempts, first by Prodi and then lately by Letta: in both cases, with no success,” says Franco Spicciariello, a lobbyist at Open Gate Italia.

Professor Pier Luigi Petrillo was part of the group of experts that last year was entrusted by Prime Minister Enrico Letta with designing new transparency rules. He explains why their proposals were turned down.

“Getting a minister or an MP to keep a list of details of all the meetings he has had with representatives of interests, not only with the economic lobbies or the banking lobbies, but with all the others, from the professional associations to the civil associations and the religious associations up to the big multinational companies… all these obligations have been considered excessive,” he concluded.

In its latest report, the European Commission says that corruption in Italy is as widespread in the public sector as in the private one. This system favours vested interests and threatens to paralyse the country.

The way to fix it is known; it takes the will to do it.

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