A Samantha Power for Italy, Too?

With the bloody collapse of Egypt, attention is drawn to the Southern shore of the Med Sea, while events in its Northern shore are going unnoticed. Yet there is much to be worried about.

Many of the countries in Southern Europe are facing problems that are not only economic but rather political. Portugal faced a massive turnover in its key ministerial posts and the government almost collapsed in early July; Spain is shaken by the discovery of widespread corruption; French President Francois Holland is so low in the polls that he decided not to go to Fort Besancon to avoid possible contestations; on the South East the situations is not better, beginning with Greece and ending up with Rumania.

As for Italy, Silvio Berlusconi's condemnation for fiscal fraud -- coupled with the internal fights within the Democratic Party 0- brings incertitude to the political future of the country. Berlusconi's condemnation risks giving him political dividends, rather than locking him out of the political arena. Politically speaking, it would have probably been wiser to condemn him, yet without depriving him of personal freedom and his seat in Parliament. The unusually quick ruling of the Court is only going to reinforce Berlusconi's followers' idea of a persecution against him and of a politically motivated judiciary system.

As it was for Mario Monti's government, Enrico Letta's coalition government only stands because President Giorgio Napolitano so wants. He requests it to stay in place at least until 2015 to cover the Presidency of the EU (second semester 2014). Napolitano is possibly the most respected political figure in Italy today, and Letta's government is the state-of-the-art in Italian governments. Its younger members include some of the best and brightest in the younger generation of politicians, the senior "technical" ministers are also among the best of their kind, and the foreign policy team finally includes A-class people both as Minister and deputies. It would, therefore, be an ideal situation, if it wasn't for two issues.

Number one, Napolitano's heavy influence in politics is good for the sake of political stability, but it way exceeds the powers given to him by the Constitution. This situation has been going on for almost three years now -- for the sake of two very respectable governments. However, what if in the future a similar ill situation will keep in place less desirable governments? In particular, should a reform of the Italian Constitution take place, introducing the direct election of the President of the Republic, this precedent may lead the country to unchartered, dangerous waters.

The second problem is the hindering role of bureaucracy and the whole issue of relations between politicians and civil servants. According to literature, politicians have essentially four resources: legitimacy; portfolio control; control over the decision-making autonomy of the organization and popular representation. The six typical instruments in the hands of the civil servants are: their expertise and monopoly of the sources of information; better and more effective decision-making; stable links with pressure groups and the social sectors influenced by their work; the nonpolitical character of the bureaucracy; the bureaucratic ideology (for example the idea that the bureaucracy is more technically skilled) and time: the life of a politician at the head of an organization is unlikely to exceed that of his civil servants. But in a climate of instability, the importance of this latter variable is much greater than when there is stability. When instability becomes chronic (or is perceived as such) it becomes the most important variable.

In other words, the creed of the civil service in Italy is that politicians come and go, while civil servants remain. This situation helps to underpin resistance to change and reform, which means that the effects of reforms tend to remain on the surface and do not deploy their full potential. Hence, the reforms the country badly needs to exit the economic crises -- flexibility and simplification above all -- are never really going to work, regardless of how potentially good governments may be.

How to change this, it is not clear. For the Italian political class, the old thesis of Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba still seems to hold, according to which Italy is still characterized by the limited spread and acceptance of the idea that civic duty plays a part in politics, little interest and poor information about politics, and a widespread sense of impotence on the part of individuals to influence political decision-making. A change in political culture and a raise in the sense of civic duty are thus needed, but these are changes that take generations to be enacted.

In her first speech as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power criticized the inefficiency of UN bureaucracy. In her tenure, she will most certainly do her best to change things. Probably it would have been a good idea to send her to Italy, instead, rather than to New York: changing Italy in fact appears to be a harder task than reforming the United Nations.