The under-reported Italian revolution

In Bologna, the student city in the ideological heartland of the Italian left, the youth are rising

The young man grips the megaphone, lamplight illuminating his features as he speaks animatedly in Spanish about the need to "find jobs and overthrow the government". The ring of faces clap and cheer as he rounds off, beer bottles held aloft as someone in the crowd shouts out, "Bravo!" Because this isn't Madrid, or Barcelona, or even Spain. This is the city of Bologna, in Italy, finally making its voice heard.

The significance of Silvio Berlusconi's unprecedented election defeat on 31 May in both his home town of Milan and the usually safe seat of Naples cannot be overstated, as it points to the real possibility of political reform in the country.

But this result, rather than being a harbinger of change, merely marks the most recent (albeit most concrete) manifestation of the turning tide of public opinion in Italy. This is a tide that the population of Bologna – the student city in the ideological heartland of the Italian left – has been riding for years.

According to the national statistics office, in 2010 one in five young Italians was classified as Neet (not in education, employment or training), the highest proportion of "idle" youths in the European Union.

So is it any wonder that the push for change in the country is being driven by this generation of "lost" youths?

Corruption and philandering aside, it is becoming increasingly clear to the average young Italian that their prime minister has failed them. Miserably. And they have had enough.

Hope is in the air

While Spain's "indignados" have made international headlines, there's a quieter series of revolutions taking place in Italy.

One such "revolution" is currently running its headquarters from a pile of sleeping bags and cushions in the city's main square, watched over by the erotic statue of Neptune, his strategically placed hand and entourage of scantily clad nymphs a favourite with tourists. But the tourists visiting now have something rather different to take holiday snaps of.

On 20 May, and inspired by events in Spain and the Middle East, several hundred protesters took to the streets of Bologna in a peaceful (and mostly unreported) occupation of Piazza del Nettuno, Neptune's Piazza, in the city centre.

Squatting on the stone cobbles with the others, squeezed between the cold, naked statues and this beating mass of humanity, I too couldn't help but be overcome by a feeling of hope. The atmosphere was jubilant; the crowd infected by their own sense of power and the sensation that they are taking control of their lives.

That was twelve days ago. They are still there, and as I write this post I speak on the phone to Antonio, one of the protest's organisers, who describes the scene to me.

"There are 30 or 40 of us here permanently, sleeping in the street," he says, "but during the day, and especially in the evenings, as many as two or three hundred people come and join us.

"People are tired of being on the periphery of their own lives," he goes on. "Citizens want to feel that they are protagonists on the political stage."

The system cannot hold

Scenes like this are becoming increasingly frequent in Bologna, where friends on the radical scene speak animatedly to me about recent demonstrations – numbering thousands of individuals – that shut down traffic around the city after protesters spilled out on to the motorway.

Across the rest of the country, too, copycat protests are springing up in the most unlikely places. A photograph in La Repubblica, one of Italy's few newspapers that are not part of Berlusconi's media empire, shows a protester on the Spanish Steps in Rome holding a placard that reads: "We are not against the system, the system is against us."

The tide may be turning, but it is a slow and uncertain transition from a handful of committed activists sleeping on the streets to a full-scale political revolution. For those camped out in the squares of cities across Italy, Europe and the Middle East, one can only hope that the social and political winds that brought them there continue to blow in their favour, and do not turn against them.

"We need to do this," Antonio tells me. "The people need us."

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle