x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

For southern Europe, human capital holds the key

Has it been a good week or a bad week for Italy, Greece and Spain? Well, it depends on how you look at it.

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

Has this been a bad week or good week for the southern European group of nations - Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain - sometimes referred to as Pigs, that most clumsy of acronyms?

In one sense it has been good - all four nations posted some decent results. It's such a shame then that those moments of success were only gathered on the football pitches of Poland and Ukraine, when all four sides secured safe passage from the treacherous waters of the European Championship's group stages into the knockout phase.

In more than one sense it was also very bad.

Spain's economy continues to limp towards the abyss and its government has recently called for up to 100 billion euros of emergency loans to prop up its ailing banking system. Greece, meanwhile, has opted for another period of stalemate in the shape of a multiparty coalition government. About the only positive to be taken from this electoral stasis is the predicted "Drachmaggedon" has been sidestepped. Portugal too is in a mess, its economy mired in a deep, interminable recession.

And what of Italy? Things have been considerably quieter since Silvio Berlusconi was finally escorted from Rome's Palazzo Chigi last November. But, like Portugal, Italy's economy continues to contract - there's been no bounce back after bunga bunga - and, like Spain, its banking system looks vulnerable, although Mario Monti, Berlusconi's successor as prime minister, rejects that notion.

Instead, Monti has issued something close to the Italian equivalent of a "keep calm and carry on" call, telling reporters that now was not the time for desperate measures to keep his nation afloat.

Rather, now is the time for managing frayed tempers.

"We Italians have a tendency to go too quickly from moments of inexplicable euphoria to unjustified depression," he said in a manner reminiscent of an Italian football supporter who'd just watched his team stumble to a draw after holding a comfortable lead.

Bill Emmott's new book Good Italy, Bad Italy (published by Yale University Press) addresses this very point. Over the course of eight chapters and a couple of hundred pages, the author, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, presents an informative and very readable travelogue across the terrain of the nation's modern history and its slump into its uncertain future.

"The country [became] one of the greatest in the world," writes Emmott, "thanks to the success of Good Italy in overcoming the burden of the Bad."

The trouble now, he contends, is "the Bad is well on top and the country is heading towards decline and even disaster if the balance is not changed". The reason we should care about this is that Italy is not so much at the periphery of the eurozone (like Portugal and Greece) but much closer to the beating heart of the ideals that brought monetary union in the first place. It is, simply, too big to fail.

We should also care because after identifying Italy's ills - its vested interests, its organised crime, its weak judicial system, its geographically imbalanced distribution of wealth and productivity, among others - Emmott offers a blueprint that might apply to any nation seeking to recover from a period of protracted crisis.

"The greatest asset of Italy," he writes, "is the Italians themselves, with their spirit of initiative, of inventiveness, of building relationships with one another."

Emmott suggests human capital rather than continuous injections of new capital are the key to the nation's future prosperity or Eppur si muove ("Italy can move, if Italians want it to").

It is an interesting thought, and not one without precedent on those sporting pitches of Europe. Only six years ago, the Italian national team battled impossible odds and a damaging domestic match-fixing scandal to emerge as football's world champions. Monti would do well to harness a similar spirit away from the green fields of footballing dreams.