The images and eyewitness reports that made the evening news last Wednesday shocked more than just Italy. Torrents of water surged through villages in the wine-growing region of Tuscany, carrying away cars, bridges and baby carriages. Sections of hillside collapsed into the sea and at least seven people died in the floods. The survivors waded through the mud, searching for their belongings.
Monterosso and Vernazza, two of the five world-famous villages that make up Cinque Terre, a popular tourist attraction, were rendered unrecognizable. Expressions of sympathy poured in from around the world and the Italian government declared a state of emergency for the affected areas.
But the catastrophe on the Gulf of Genoa was not a purely natural disaster. The flood damage was also a result of 1.3 million houses that were built illegally, of a countryside recklessly covered in concrete and of poorly fortified dams. There was no monsoon here, just one day of heavy rain. Yet the damage was devastating.
This makes the flood disaster seem somewhat symptomatic of the political drama that was playing out at the same time, in which doubts were being cast once again about Italy's ability to halt its collision course with national bankruptcy, service its debts, learn from past mistakes and not just promise reforms, but also implement them.
While the Mediterranean coast was flooding, dams of another sort were breaking in Rome, where an entire nation found itself embarrassed and ridiculed by its partners in the European Union -- Italian media, of course, reported on that as well. The Italian president had to endure questions about whether his country's government was still capable of functioning at all, and if not, whether or not there was a replacement ready to take its place. Several members of parliament came to physical blows during a parliamentary session, while Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, already reduced to an object of incredulous head-shaking abroad, seemed to slip closer to his downfall. The country pinned its last hopes on a 17-page letter, demanded as an ultimatum by the country's euro-zone partners, detailing Italy's plans for averting the crisis.
Is Italy Still a Serious Partner?
For Italy, last week's summit in Brussels was a chance to find out whether the third largest economic power in the euro zone was still a serious partner within the EU at all, or whether the prime minister, unpopular at home as well as abroad, would yet again embarrass himself and his country.
Every little indication counted. How firmly did German Chancellor Angela Merkel shake the Italian prime minister's hand? Why did French President Nicolas Sarkozy avoid any direct encounters with him? Was it really necessary for Berlusconi to stare quite so long at new Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt's legs? Would he be able to convince Italy's partners of the seriousness of his proposed reforms?
Berlusconi himself seemed satisfied. During a break in the summit, at nearly midnight, he put in a live call to "Porta a Porta," Italy's most important political talk show. This is a habit of the prime minister's when he's very proud of himself or very angry with others.
'Italy Isn't Greece'
Soon, he was on his way back to the airport, commenting that his proposed austerity measures had been well received in Brussels. He didn't even bother addressing the possibility that he might resign, something that had been the subject of speculation in Italy for days. "Italy isn't Greece," the prime minister then concluded. "There won't be civil unrest here."
That statement glosses over a phenomenon that is already occurring. There have indeed been protests in Italy -- and when the whole world followed the lead of Occupy Wall Street, the demonstrations in Rome turned violent -- and unions are threatening to carry out a general strike. While politicians around the world praise various measures taken -- the haircut of Greek debt, the increase in funds to the euro safety net known as the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) and a commitment to better capital ratios for banks -- as steps in the right direction, nothing has changed on the Italian front of the European financial crisis. The interest rates the country will have to pay in order to refinance its 1.9 trillion ($2.7 trillion) national debt remain at drastic levels.
The only difference is that, since the Brussels summit, Italy has taken center stage in the European debt crisis. The country needs to refinance approximately 60 billion just by the end of the year. Will this trigger the next phase of the European crisis?
Italy has seemed incapable of moving forward for months, primarily because its prime minister is not only entangled in his own private affairs, but also heads a coalition in danger of collapsing at any moment.
Berlusconi and his most important coalition partner -- Umberto Bossi, head of the EU-skeptic Northern League -- have both fallen so far in public opinion polls that they don't dare call for new elections. The political opposition, itself divided internally, can't force elections either. The result is that Italy's entire political system is paralyzed, which in turn ensures the continuation not only of an unpopular government, but also of its lack of progress, since the coalition partners will continue to argue over necessary austerity measures.
Italy Absent from Euro Rescue
Despite being a founding member of the EU, Italy has been completely absent from the attempts to end the European crisis, and pressure from outside the country is reaching unprecedented levels. In August, the European Central Bank (ECB) sent Berlusconi a letter dictating concrete reforms to his government. The letter was signed by then-ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet, as well as by his successor Mario Draghi, at the time still the governor of the Bank of Italy, Rome's central bank. The letter amounted to politely worded blackmail: The ECB wouldn't buy Italian bonds unless Berlusconi finally identified how he planned to reduce national debt from its current level, 120 percent of the country's gross domestic product. And still nothing changed.
It was Berlusconi's failure to act that prompted Merkel and Sarkozy's meaningful looks and shared laugh at their now legendary press conference during the first Brussels summit on Oct. 23. It was a laugh that came across as helpless, as if they might rather have cried than chuckled, and the two heads of state looked like teachers concerned about a misbehaving child. Merkel's concern, in fact, was apparently so great that she had inquired of Italian President Giorgio Napolitano whether Italy was even still capable of taking action. The German and Italian leaders reportedly talked for half an hour about Berlusconi's credibility, and the question of what would happen if the current government were to collapse.
It has gradually become painfully clear to Italy as well that Brussels has developed a two-tiered system, and Italy is looking likely to be left behind. The fact that the country's partners would publicly mock the prime minister, and thus the country as a whole, drew anger in Italy, where many people automatically react negatively to criticism from abroad -- especially when that criticism comes from France. Giuliano Ferrara, a former Communist who is now Berlusconi's spin doctor and a well-known TV commentator, led a demonstration in front of the Palazzo Farnese, the seat of the French Embassy in Rome, to protest France's arrogant attitude.
Failed Summits in Rome
Berlusconi, meanwhile, reacted with a press release and a refusal to tolerate lectures from abroad. Still, it seemed that this time he had understood the message from other European leaders: Italy needed to act. He convened two coalition summits in Rome, although both nearly failed to get off the ground because of Northern League leader Bossi's unwillingness to compromise.
On the same day as the Brussels summit, members of the ruling coalition and members of the opposition came to blows in the Italian Parliament, Bossi's followers having it out with those of Gianfranco Fini, a former Berlusconi ally and current opposition member. The parliamentary session was suspended as a result. The drama wasn't particularly unusual for the Italian Parliament, but the topic was a serious one: pension reform.
Fini, president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, had previously mocked Bossi on a televised talk show, saying he knew why Bossi was so resistant to the necessity of raising the country's retirement age: because the Northern League politician's own wife took an early retirement from her teaching job at the age of 39.
Things finally began to settle down when Bossi eventually agreed to a new retirement age of 67, although not until the year 2026. Berlusconi hurried to Brussels with this offer, as well as several proposals for easing job protection laws. The rest of the letter's 17 pages were filled with measures previously announced as part of this summer's austerity package. That package was also the source of Berlusconi's promise that Italy will present a balanced budget by 2013 and reduce its debt to 113 percent the following year.
Once again, there was no mention of moves that could potentially bring in considerable sums for Italy, for example tackling organized crime, corruption and tax fraud -- Berlusconi himself is facing trial for the last of those three. The only truly new aspect to the letter was the mention of a further austerity package, to be announced mid-month.
Berlusconi's Political Twilight
Despite the dire mood in Rome, where there has been speculation for weeks over possible early elections in the spring, the opposition hasn't managed to agree on a leading candidate or a platform. For years, they have failed to reform the current electoral law, widely regarded as problematic because it allows a party that wins only a relative majority to take more than half the seats in Parliament. Despite the Italian left wing's complete focus on battling Berlusconi, the longer the prime minister's Götterdämmerung, or twilight in power, drags on, the more the opposition comes to seem unelectable as well. This is the real drama of Italian politics.
Still, the austerity measures proposed to Brussels, in the slim 17-page document, seem to have fulfilled their purpose for the time being, buying Berlusconi a bit more time. There have been no new aspersions cast on the Italian head of state, and European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn even praised Italy for "clear measures and an ambitious timetable," although not without stressing that he personally will be keeping a close eye on the implementation of the plan.
Berlusconi's own response was unusually tight-lipped. To journalists lining the red carpet and their questions about where Italy would go from here, the prime minister offered nothing more than a gesture, circling his hand in the air like the hand of a clock to mean "dopo" -- Italian for later.
A 'Confused and Dramatic Situation'
What, then, remains from the week in October that started with resignation rumors but ended, as so often happens, with niente, nothing? There's a plan, the promise of a further plan, and a conviction all around that Italy's government is not up to tackling this crisis.
Is there still a chance of getting the country's finances back in balance? Italy isn't Greece -- Berlusconi is at least correct in that estimation. The country's banks are still healthy, as are its many small and medium-sized, family-run businesses. Still, just days before taking up his new position in Frankfurt as president of the ECB, outgoing Bank of Italy Governor Draghi described his country as being in a "confused and dramatic situation."
Berlusconi seems more serious about his own relief at escaping Brussels again than he ever was about the initial criticism. After the summit, he flew to his villa near Milan, presumably to relax for a while -- with or without female company, no one really cares anymore. Once again, weeks could go by in this lovely, battered country without any serious implementation of the austerity measures.
Ireland, Portugal and Slovenia have all seen governments collapse from their inability to handle the financial crisis. Spain's ruling party is likely to be voted out of office this month for the same reason.
But despite the doom and gloom in Italy, such a major change seems unlikely. Ezio Mauro, editor-in-chief at the left-wing newspaper La Repubblica, goes so far as to diagnose the reason as being that Italy doesn't even have a government -- it has a regime.