Europe is home to three nations that should be successes but instead are failing badly. Over the following pages, we look at their problems – from corruption to constitutional meltdown.
Britain scores high in the life expectancy, education and GDP stakes but it’s also a country beset by failing schools, Europe’s highest rates of teenage pregnancy and festering community relations. An Australian resident in the capital says it’s time Britons turned their backs on their fatuous, frivolous lifestyles.
Anyone whose knowledge of the United Kingdom was derived entirely from consuming its media would wonder why anyone wanted to live here. Survey the acres of hand-wringing reportage and choleric opinion-slinging about crime, ungoverned immigration, burgeoning Islamism, feral youth, rampant drunkenness, decaying infrastructure, disintegrating government, failing schools, collapsing economy, an unemployable underclass, sclerotic transport, war on two possibly unwinnable fronts, and Britain sounds like Somalia with markedly worse weather.
Obviously, it isn’t that bad. Britain is, after all, a prosperous, first-world country. The UN’s Human Development Index places Britain among the world’s top 20 nations in each of its three key indicators (life expectancy, education, gross domestic product). According to Eurostat, Britain recorded net immigration of 159,500 from 2006 to 2007. It is the sixth-most popular country on earth for tourists. For many its capital, London, still feels more like the capital of the world than anywhere else. Britain is clearly doing something right.
And yet. There is a palpable unease besetting Britain at present, even more than usual (when calibrating these things, one must bear in mind the astute observation of The New Yorker editor David Remnick, that the inhabitants of these islands are distinguished among the world’s peoples in exhibiting schadenfreude towards themselves). The perception that the place is irrecoverably bound for hell in a handcart is more pronounced than it has been at any time in the 18 years that I’ve lived in London. Friends with children ponder moving to the countryside, worried about schools and crime rates in the cities. Friends without children wonder why they’re not living somewhere that’s cheaper, cleaner, less crowded and less hassle (which, whatever Britain’s manifold virtues, could mean just about anywhere in the developed world).
They have their reasons. There are some profoundly wretched statistical assessments of Britain’s current state. To pick a few, more or less at random: Britain has Europe’s highest rates of teenage pregnancy; England and Wales imprison a greater percentage of their youth than any EU country (Scotland’s statistics are counted separately); a Prince’s Trust report suggested that almost a fifth of British 16-24 year-olds are burdened by the acronym NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training); a Pew poll found that 81 per cent of British muslims saw themselves as muslims before they saw themselves as Britons, despite living in a freer country than any of their co-religionists from Tangier to Tehran.
Less quantifiable but perhaps more significant in moulding perception is a steady tick of depressing news stories: two police officers attacked by an angry mob in London after asking a young woman to pick up her litter; government plans to issue stab-proof vests to nurses, teachers, traffic wardens and others obliged to deal with the public; the fact that Britons are so uninterested in working for their own National Health Service that the NHS ends up with members of terror cells (the two men standing trial for the memorably hapless 2007 attack on Glasgow airport are NHS doctors, born in Iraq and Jordan); the ghastly surge in knife crime, which has killed 21 teenage Londoners in 2008 (and one feels wearily obliged to add the caveat “at the time of writing”).
Speaking as an outsider, albeit one who has come to know and – though it doesn’t always feel requited – love this place, I think this malaise is a product of history. Any undertaking by Britain or Britons is made in a uniquely long shadow – this country has, unarguably, bequeathed to mankind a greater legacy of genius than any other.
The world speaks Britain’s language, plays its sports, celebrates its literature, profits incalculably from its colossal experience and expertise in matters political, diplomatic, economic, technological and military. I’d also say the world “aspires to its liberty” were it not for the cruel irony that Britain’s present government is beholden to such illiberal notions as overturning habeas corpus and introducing a boneheaded ID database. On that subject, it also feels obvious that the continuing occupation of the government benches by the Labour Party is part of the problem. It’s not just that they’re floundering – and they are – but that after 11 years in power people are just plain bored with them.
There’s a lot I don’t understand about this place – and, by now, suspect I never shall. I don’t know why so many attempts to exchange money for goods and services are met with such fabulous incompetence and resentment. I don’t fathom the difficulty so many here seem to have with putting rubbish in bins. I’m baffled by the choice made by so much of the population to disdain the historically astounding heritage and opportunity that is their birthright in favour of consuming an overwhelmingly fatuous, frivolous, celebrity-obsessed popular culture, and still more so by the willingness of even supposed bastions of grown-up media to serve this drivel up.
A comedown was always inevitable. Within my parents’ lifetime, Britain ran an empire that never saw sunset. As someone who grew up in one of those former colonies, and has travelled to dozens more formerly pink parts of the map, I’m always struck by the affection, if not reverence, expressed for Britain, and things British. The most avid, informed and grateful anglophiles I’ve met have been Iraqis, Indians, Americans, Cameroonians, Pakistanis, Bosnians – and even, not that we’d ever let on, a few of my fellow Australians. It would be constructive if more British people were able to feel, and express, something of that sort – even if that might not be a very British thing to do.
Author of One blood: Inside Britain’s New Street Gangs
“So far, Britain’s mistake in attempting to tackle the problem of gang and knife crime has been to focus on enforcement rather than prevention. Not only is that approach ineffective; it feeds public fears. The big problem is that the government is looking for short-term results. What is needed is a long-term plan. Police, housing, education, voluntary services and local bodies need to work together and have long-term goals. It will take time and money. Not what every politician likes to hear.”
Professor at the University of California, Irvine, in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society
“I wish that people in the UK would look hard and seriously at the US experience with youth violence. We have the worst level of serious violent crime among teenagers and young men of any advanced industrial society.
The single most important thing we’ve realised is that you need serious work opportunities for young people. You have to provide real jobs and training opportunities to do something besides selling burgers. Jobs should be created that allow the young to give something back to the community; socially useful jobs in healthcare or construction or public safety. If you’re willing as a society to put public resources and investment into training and hiring young people to tackle those problems, you will have a great double whammy; you’ll fix both the kids and the problems.”
A secondary school history teacher turned journalist. From 1997 to 2002, Moloney worked at state schools in London.
— Reduce average class sizes from 27 to 15 pupils. Research shows this is an immediate way to improve results and discipline.
— Reduce the size of schools. Mega schools are unmanageable.
— A shortage of teachers has forced schools to employ mediocre and unqualified staff. Make
it easier for schools to sack poor teachers. (It’s almost impossible).
— Stop the incessant testing and monitoring of student learning. It’s time consuming, costly and turns teachers into paper pushers.
— High staff turnover and the reliance on substitute teachers encourages children to misbehave. Provide financial incentives and perks (eg subsidised gym membership, child care and transport) to encourage talented teachers to stay on in the same school and nurture other newly qualified teachers. 0
— Make improving literacy the key focus. There is a direct correlation between low literacy and poor behaviour, especially among boys.
— Introduce obligatory literacy summer schools for pupils with low reading ages.
— Provide intensive English language courses for all immigrant children who don’t speak English, before expecting them to sit quietly during a lesson about Shakespeare. — The rigid National Curriculum is not accessible or suitable for all. Allow schools to introduce new practical skills-based curriculums where pupils can learn a manual trade early on.
Corrupt, protectionist, and paternalistic, are just some of the words used to describe Italy’s political system. But can the nation – let alone its leaders – face up to the painful process of change?
It has the most UNESCO-protected sites in the world and it’s home to the finest textile, footwear and furniture makers, but Italy is still in the dark ages where business is concerned, says a leading writer on the Italian state.
There can be little doubt that Italy has now become the sick man of Europe. The dolce vita of the postwar years has turned sour and barely a day goes by without reports confirming that the country is in a very serious crisis.
It was symbolised this spring by the sight of thousands of tonnes of rubbish on the streets of Naples. For complicated reasons (not least mafia control of lucrative refuse contracts but also some pronounced nimbyism) rubbish went uncollected for months on end. Children walked to school with handkerchiefs held to their faces. Arsonists set light to the rubbish, sending toxic fumes across the city. The images were seen around the world and Italy appeared, not for the first time, to be struggling to remain a part of the developed world.
One of the reasons for the country’s implosion of self-confidence is its financial situation. The IMF has slashed its growth forecast for Italy to a measly 0.5 per cent for 2008 and 2009. The country’s GDP per capita fell behind Spain’s in 2006, and Greece is fast catching up. Prices are soaring and wages are stagnant. The tax burden is a crippling 42 per cent of GDP. (It’s 37.4 per cent in the UK and 29.6 per cent in the US.) All the traditionally strong sectors of the country’s economy – textiles, footwear, furniture, electronics – are facing fierce competition from cheaper Far Eastern imports.
The situation is epitomised by the fate of national airline Alitalia. Notoriously unreliable, the company is currently losing €1m a day. A rescue deal had been agreed with the Air France-KLM consortium, but the deal collapsed because unions wouldn’t agree to job cuts and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s new government doesn’t like the idea of selling to a foreign company. So the airline limps along losing money, receiving loans from the weary Italian tax-payer that everyone knows will never be repaid.
Therein lies one of Italy’s gravest problems: for all his talk of economic liberalism, Berlusconi, like most Italian politicians, is avowedly protectionist, trying to insulate failing companies against the chill winds of globalisation and competition. The result, of course, is that companies remain inefficient dinosaurs and tourists decide to spend their cash in other countries where things work better and cost less (see Europe Briefing, page 46).
Some of the country’s difficulties could be alleviated by foreign investment, but Italy sees a fraction of the investment of other G8 countries because it suffers from an enduring, and justified, reputation for corruption. Italy came 41st in Transparency International’s Global Corruption table, way below countries such as Botswana, Estonia and Uruguay. Berlusconi, with all his bespoke legislation to avoid standing trial in corruption cases, certainly does not improve that reputation. And it can’t help that his government has decided to close the country’s anti-corruption body “to cut costs”.
There are other problems that are more cultural or anthropological. The country rarely appears meritocratic. Its paternalistic structure means that people are promoted on a basis of favours, or familiarity, rather than excellence. The country appears like a gerontocracy where only old men hold positions of power. In universities, for example, 70 per cent of all lecturers are over 45. If you look at television, or business, or politics, old men are in charge. As such the exuberant creativity of the country goes untapped and young, ambitious job-seekers are forced abroad if they want to enjoy satisfying careers. In 2005, for example, over 297,000 graduates left Italy. The result is a brain-drain the country can ill afford.
As might be expected, the country has begun to seek scapegoats for its predicament and readily finds them among the immigrant community. Although Italy is usually distinguished by its warm hospitality to foreigners, recent years have seen a rise in open racism. One mayor called for separate train carriages for immigrants. Attacks on all minorities – particularly gypsies – are on the increase. All of which makes Italy feel less like a part of the confident, multicultural western world, and appear more like a country caught in a downward spiral of resentment, finger-pointing and rampant inflation.
And Italians love talking and reading about how terrible their country is. The runaway publishing success of 2008 is La Deriva (“The Drift”), subtitled “Why Italy Risks Sinking”. Co-authored by Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella, it has sold 200,000 copies in the first three months. Bemoaning the state of the nation is a national pastime, and every day dozens of newspaper columns will reveal new reasons for pessimism.
But there are many reasons for hope. Italians remain among the most creative of Europeans. Italian design, engineering, fashion and food are still considered the best in the world. Many of its family-run businesses remain iconic, global brands.
They always find original solutions to survive the dark periods of dictatorships, war, organised crime and economic poverty. Out of those dark periods they bequeath to the world brilliant inventions and discoveries. As Giuseppe Garibaldi once said, “Italy will never be short of men who can astound the world.”
But if the country is to check out of the sick bay any time soon, it will have to take some fairly radical steps: it will have to confront organised crime head on and root out corruption wherever it is found; it will need to reassert the rule of law rather than demonise it (as Berlusconi often does); it will need to introduce competition to the many protected sectors of the economy and allow failing companies to go bankrupt or to be sold off – whatever the political cost.
Most of all it will have to unearth a new generation of politicians who reflect the many virtues, rather than the vices, of the Italian electorate.
Co-author of the best-selling book The Caste and columnist at Corriere della Sera newspaper
“Transport has become worse and the Italian state has let it happen. Just look at Alitalia. It has an ageing fleet with half the business traffic of its competitors and with pilots who fly 30 per cent less than other pilots. Nonetheless, the government still pours money into a carrier that’s lost €3bn in the past 15 years. Its only hope is to join with an established flag carrier but it missed the chance with the Air France-KLM offer thanks to politicking. It’s completely crazy. The politicians don’t make decisions that look after the interests of the whole and, of course, none of them ever pays for it.”
Comedian, blogger and political commentator
“It’s difficult to say whether Italy is a failed state and in denial or on the brink of failing. The public debt is one of the highest in the world and growing. There are hundreds of useless state entities and twice as many parliamentarians as needed. It’s a straitjacket holding down the country. Italian politics is like a comedy. The electoral law prevents citizens from selecting a candidate – instead, six or seven people are chosen by political party secretaries. Wives, friends, lawyers and lovers appear.
Parliament and the country cohabitate in the same territory but are two completely different things. The electoral law needs to be changed. Citizens must be able to choose their candidate so as to have a parliament without career politicians.”
Ferruccio de Bortoli
Editor-in-chief, Il Sole 24 Ore
“In 1970, we were first in tourism, now we’re fifth [international arrivals]. We have 50 per cent of the world’s artistic and cultural patrimony; we have the most UNESCO-protected sites but we have a problem when it comes to offering high-level tourism. We don’t have the hotels, we don’t have good sea ports. We need to upgrade our services. We need a high-end Italian-owned hotel chain that offers good customer service.
We should learn from the Croatians or the Swiss in terms of promotion. To start with, we don’t have a single country brand. We need a new website, a new logo. Federalism hurts when it comes to tourism. It’s a problem. We don’t need each region selling its tourism. We need a single message but it requires political will.”
Three years on, New Orleans is still in recovery from Hurricane Katrina and not enough has changed since the world saw those pictures of a collapsed society. Not to mention that in 2007 it had the highest murder rate in the US.
They call it the Big Easy, but New Orleans is hardly carefree. The only people who have an easy life here are the tourists for whom a stroll though the French Quarter is incomplete without getting drunk on a tastelessly named cocktail called the Hurricane…
It is no secret that three years on from Katrina, the city remains largely dysfunctional. Some of this can be blamed on the hurricane. Whole office blocks remain unoccupied. There are still too few hospitals; residents in eastern New Orleans face journeys of 25 minutes to reach the nearest A&E.
But much seems endemic to the city, such as crime. Last year, 95 people for every 100,000 living in the city were murdered. The next most violent city, Detroit, had 49 murders per 100,000 people.
City officials point to recent improvements, but they start from a low threshold. They celebrate that in parts of the Lower 9th Ward, the area flooded the worst, a quarter of all houses are habitable now. They trumpet their success in July, of at last clearing a homeless camp from under a flyover near Canal Street where 200 people had been sleeping on rat-infested sofas. And they claim it’s wondrous that the population is growing.
True, latest census figures show 239,124 people are now living in central New Orleans, making it the quickest-growing city in the US. But that is still half what it used to be. Away from the tourist haunts, the Big Easy remains hollowed out and profoundly difficult.
For years it seemed impossible that Belgium’s language divide would ever threaten the nation’s existence. Now the talk is of little else in the bars of Brussels
In one municipality there’s a hotline to call if you spot a café with French rather than Dutch menus. This is a symptom of the political intolerance and divisive thinking that needs to stop if Belgium is to survive its national crisis, says a foreign correspondent based in Brussels.
Since elections in June 2007 failed to give birth to a stable government, Belgium has been in one long crisis. Despite being a wealthy, comfortable, western European country, whose capital Brussels is the beating heart of the European Union, Belgium seems intent on tearing itself apart.
The country’s future is in doubt as never before as state institutions keep failing to find accommodation between the Dutch-speaking and francophone political classes. For over a year, Belgium has been unable to form a stable government that holds together representatives of the Dutch speaking Flemish majority (58 per cent of the population) and the French speaking Walloons (32 per cent).
Only as recently as 2007, talk of splitting Belgium was taboo. But in recent months it has become difficult to buy a newspaper (whatever the language) which does not speculate on whether the country might soon cease to exist. I find it hard to believe in this crisis. Looking around, most Belgians, whether they’re in Dutch speaking Flanders or francophone Wallonia, are not at each other’s throats. The Belgian state is the one with the identity crisis, not the Belgians.
Whether they are Christian Democrat, Socialist or Liberal, Belgians are constitutionally required to vote along ethnic lines; there are no national political figures in the country’s 11 parties and there are five parliaments organised on rigid regional and linguistic lines. When Belgium’s complex system designates an area as officially Flemish, the local Dutch-speaking politicians can only keep control of money and resources if they can ensure the area is a “pure” linguistic community. So if the French speaking population grows, the Flemish politicians take extra measures to impose Dutch as the local language.
The result? In the leafy, prosperous, quiet and comfortable suburbs of Brussels, where professionals live (including many of the international community who work for the EU or NATO), municipal inspectors are on the watch for shopkeepers who advertise their services in languages other than Dutch. Or in Overijse, a hotline and email address is available for local citizens to denounce bar or café owners who have French rather than Dutch menus. It’s the ultimate irony that the 27 countries of the EU work together (in 23 official languages) to run the union from Brussels, but Belgium is indulging in a kind of linguistic apartheid that is paralysing the country.
Belgium came into being in 1830, supported by great powers such as Britain, after a Brussels uprising by the French- speaking Walloons who were angry at their treatment by the Dutch-dominated Netherlands. A government and monarchy were created and for over 130 years Belgium’s single official language was French. Dutch – though spoken by the Flemish majority – was excluded from public life and state bureaucracy. Unsurprisingly, new historical grievances were born and have simmered ever since. Now, we’re seeing Flemish politicians calling for areas to be split into separate Dutch -speaking and Francophone constituencies.
The awful truth about Belgium is that its institutions create and maintain barriers that keep its people apart and hold the country back. The intolerance and discrimination to be found in the Flemish suburbs of Brussels have not been demanded by mobs but are required under Belgium’s particular federal model.
History and geography might be part of the problem – it can’t be easy mixing Germanic and Latin cultures – but they are not a good enough excuse. Look at Switzerland. Swiss people learn their country’s three main languages in school, speak them in their parliament without dividing political parties or electoral districts along linguistic lines. Belgium needs to turn its linguistic mix into cultural wealth, not political weakness.
It could start by allowing politicians, whether Flemish or Walloon or German- speaking to campaign anywhere in the country, in whatever language they choose. Huge cost savings and tax cuts could be delivered by simply scrapping any tier of government that is duplicated solely on the basis of language.
Hayday is author of Bilingual Today, United Tomorrow: Official Languages in Education and Canadian Federalism.
“Canada has approached its linguistic duality in a different way to Belgium. In Belgium, where there is little bilingualism outside Brussels, the two sides are encouraged to stay separate. Canada is putting more effort into fostering the sense that bilingualism is a core element of Canadian identity. A lot can be done through education. Looking at the school system will be essential if Belgium is to move forward.