Greece is not the only country where the euro vision has fast become a nightmare

The single currency has hollowed out the heart of Italy

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The Independent Online

Fifteen years after its introduction, the most visible effect of the euro in Florence, the beautiful heart of Italy, has been the total hollowing out of the local economy. Only a couple of decades ago this was a city whose boutiques and trattorias, craft shops and cafés offered at least modestly tasteful accompaniment to the masterpieces conjured up by the Medicis. But now the contrast between the art of the ages and the tat of today is grotesque.

All the most interesting shops have vanished from the centre. In their place are businesses whose reason for being in business at all is a mystery: fashion shops whose stock is many years out of date, sad little supermarkets, mournful, deserted restaurants – all cheek by jowl with the glittering, shrieking follies of the flagship stores of Gucci and Roberto Cavalli and Chanel, which seem to be patronised exclusively by young, female Chinese tourists.

It’s become de rigueur to blame mass tourism, especially from the Far East, for the dismal turn that Florence, Venice and Rome have taken. But the tourists only stick out because today they are about the only conspicuous sign of economic life left. Further north, Chinese money is keeping Milan alive too, taking over the pizzerias and presiding over dozens of dubious-looking massage parlours. No money is being generated within this country, so it depends on the stuff coming from far away for survival.

Florence insiders say the only reason the dud-looking shops in the centre survive is because they are handy for money laundering – yet another sign that here, down in the “Club Med” of the EU, the dream of the euro ushering in a new age of prosperity is not merely dead, its corpse is visibly deliquescing.

 

Given this desperate state of affairs – reflected in high unemployment, large-scale emigration of youth with any enterprise and a festering sense of hopelessness – it is hardly surprising that in Italy anti-European, and in particular anti-euro sentiment has turned militant, with nearly half the population declaring the currency “a bad thing”, a higher rate even than in Greece, Spain or Portugal. Yet the turnabout is still a shock, because euro orthodoxy was for decades effectively beyond challenge in the land where the Treaty of Rome was signed.

Until very recently, Europe was conventionally seen as Italy’s only hope. When corrupt or inept Italian governments were tempted to take criminal advantage of their powers, which was not infrequent, Europe was the cop at the door who held them in an icy glare, the “external constraint” that kept their finance ministers (fairly) honest. Indeed, in the gloomy view of many, it was only Europe that prevented Italy’s feeble and beleaguered state from falling apart altogether.

The euro taboo was first shattered by that career iconoclast Beppe Grillo, whose Five-Star Movement scored staggering success in its first electoral outings. He has since been aped by the congenitally opportunistic Northern League and by Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – and yes, unbelievable as it may appear to many, Mr Bunga-Bunga is still a power in the land, despite his criminal conviction.

The fact that these rogues and miscreants are the only Italian politicians wedded – however briefly and cynically we will eventually find out – to Euroscepticism proves that, even down here in the Italian doldrums, the idea of exiting from the currency, let alone from the EU itself, remains a counsel of despair. Where else would Italy go, other than straight to hell? For all these years Italy has been chugging along in a comfortable trenino, like the jolly little train of party-people in Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty, rolling towards the promised euroland.

The same mood of comfortable inevitability was true for the longest time across most of the continent: ever-closer integration was as impossible to challenge as transubstantiation or the Assumption of the Virgin for a believing Catholic. But now they are stuck in austerity, which resembles the valley of the shadow of death. As a senior German official admitted to the Wall Street Journal this week, “We always tell the crisis countries to ‘Stay the course’. But it’s difficult for them. All we are offering is the stick.” Churchill offered Britain only blood, toil, tears and sweat, but at least with a chance of victory at the end of it.

Fifteenth-century Florence was not a place that promised much. The city’s tight-packed medieval tenements were built like miniature fortresses within which violently antagonistic factions plotted revenge and usurpation. Yet somehow, from the tormented heart of all this internecine feuding, eternal masterpieces were produced in every art form known to man. What will our descendants 500 years from now make of the legacy of the eurozone here? Another disaster, I imagine – less dramatic than the last one, but scarcely more cheering.

At my guest house I found a picture book of Florence at war: Mussolini proudly motoring through the city with Hitler at his side, showing off the wonders of Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi; later, huge crowds packed into Piazza Signoria, awaiting Il Duce’s commands.

That was an earlier euroland utopia in the making; four years on, the retreating Germans, now universally despised, were blowing up Florence’s bridges while refugees from Allied air raids piled their possessions onto carts and dragged them over the cobbles to safety. These grand European visions have a nasty way of curdling.

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