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Letter from the i editor: Italy and Greece

Italy and Greece have never been like the countries of northern Europe, and never will be, no matter how many times we try to make them.

As we wring our hands over what we see as the Greeks’ stubborn refusal to take responsibility for their own debt (and pay some tax), and Italy’s inability to overthrow Berlusconi (and pay some tax), our Latin cousins see things differently.

The Greeks can see they haven’t a warm retsina in a taverna’s chance of paying off a debt that is larger than their own GDP, so why accept yet more austerity for the stability of a currency they detest as much as many of us?

Italians — not all, but enough — look at vain, ridiculous Silvio, and think: he’s 70, he’s a billionaire, he owns AC Milan, a newspaper, the supermarkets, TV stations, he has his hair (it’s dyed, so what?), he says whatever he likes because he is untouchably rich, he parties and has lots of sex with lots of sexy young women, and he doesn’t pay much tax. Brits find him vulgar, and want to report him for tax evasion. Italians — apart from the minority that want to impeach him — want to “be like Silvio”.

Read Norman Lewis’s excellent Naples ’44 or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, to see why “we” always think “they” can be made more like “us” when we meddle in their affairs, despite history telling us that “we” become more like “them”.

Greece will default, sooner or later. The issue is how to manage the process, and does Greece stay in the euro. Of course, Italy will survive. But both countries, and the eurozone itself, could be saved a great deal of pain if — for once — our leaders were to show real leadership, and stop pretending we are all like each other.

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