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Why Italy, My Adopted Home, Is Destined For Failure


rome marketFrustrations with tax and bureaucracy have led Gary Jones to the conclusion that the country he loves is destined to fail,

Italy, in my view, is undoubtedly the best country in the world to be a consumer. As long as one is prepared to pick up the bill, it has the most diverse variety of Mediterranean cuisine, the weather is unbeatable and the nation’s history and culture is a window on to the past two millennia in Europe. Caesar comes alive in Rome while the legacy of Lorenzo il Magnifico remains on display in Florence. The list is endless.

If one can afford it, living in Italy is a very satisfactory way to enjoy la dolce vita with all its trappings. There is however a less appealing side to Italian life that I have encountered over the past 20 years that I have been happily married to an Italian woman. It was during the early 1990s that I had the good fortune to marry a Venetian before embarking on a career that has taken me to a number of countries around the world.

I no longer work the long corporate hours that I had grown accustomed to and instead for the past five years have been living in northern Italy in the foothills of the Alps which I find profoundly beautiful. Our children are now fluent in both my native English and in Italian. They move easily and comfortably between the two cultures.

I deliberately used the word 'consumer’ in the first paragraph to emphasize the difference between a transitory foreign visitor in Italy who, in short, consumes, pays and ultimately leaves and a permanent foreign resident like myself who needs to engage and get on with life.

Engaging with the Italian system with all its foibles has led me to see a social fabric that is at best frayed and at worst doomed. We own our home in northern Italy and a summer house on the Ligurian coast close to the Cinque Terre. I have very little to complain about as both my wife and I enjoy the best of the Italian and Anglo-Saxon worlds. But it is the daily interaction with the civil service, the tax system and the local bureaucracy in Italy that infuriates and frustrates in equal measure.

Enjoying a good meal at our local trattoria is always a cash affair where receipts and invoices are only for wimps. As Italy struggled with its debt obligations, the then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his minister of finance, Giulio Tremonti, went on the offensive and in a television advertisement described tax evaders as worms and cockroaches. The image is a powerful one and under most circumstances an appropriate one.

I looked to the UK where MPs have gone to prison for a few thousand pounds of illegal expense claims. Equally, I looked to Mr Tremonti who had been living in a former aide’s Rome apartment for which he was paying cash. “I will make alternative arrangements,” Mr Tremonti cried as he stood his ground.

My wife likes to tell me that in Italy the law is not an absolute, it is just a guideline. Initially I found that amusing. Today I cannot help but think that the country is destined to fail. Some years ago an Italian friend registered a company in Italy that would allow him to trade goods he wished to import. The registration and opening of the company cost him the better part of €10,000 between professional and administrative fees. By contrast, I consider the £100 or so that I would pay in the UK to open a company.

Over the longer term compared with its UK equivalent, I suspect that the Italian company would be more profitable as an active participant in the informal sector where tax payable is merely a guideline.

I do not know precisely what an MP’s pension arrangements are in the UK but I look at the generous provisions for an Italian MP and I wonder whether there is hope for the young Italians of today. A three-year stint as a vocal participant in the Italian parliament ensures the Italian MP an automatic right to a lifelong claim to an approximate €10,000 (£8,000) monthly pension. Considering the longevity of Italians raised on olive oil and fresh vegetables I do understand Angela Merkel’s despair as the stock markets head south.

A round trip from my home in Piedmont to my summer home in Liguria, amounting to approximately 400km (250 miles), requires an autostrada (motorway) charge of almost €50 (£40). Considering that the autostrada are owned by a publicly listed company, I can’t help wondering how appropriate this charge is. It is possibly a snip at the price considering the quality of lifestyle we enjoy by the sea and under the sun. It remains a far cry however from the toll-free roads to Cornwall’s sandy beaches.

From time to time we, like others, receive an outrageous tax claim or council tax demand (often a retrospective claim on what has already been paid). While I seethe at the injustice of it all, my wife patronises me and treats it as a challenge. Wearing a well-worn coat, her fingers and ears deprived of jewellery, my wife will visit the Turin tax office telling tales to a sympathetic tax assessor of her absent English husband and how she is left to look after two children relying on the benevolence of her extended family.

Although I have grown accustomed to these vagaries of Italian bureaucratic protocol, I do not entirely understand them. However as the HSBC advertisement likes to say, “we never underestimate the importance of local knowledge”.

I would not change anything about my life in Italy. It is satisfying and it is fulfilling. Overall I would not trade the net benefits of being both a consumer and a local. But what about young Italians trying to make their way in their own country? If I were a young, educated and ambitious Italian, I would head straight for Malpensa airport to seek pastures anew.

On the other hand, who am I to suggest that the work ethic that I am accustomed to is the best way to run a business and to accumulate capital? After all, Italians have been doing things their way for centuries.

This article was originally published in the Telegraph Weekly World Edition .

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