The zone just south of Milan's Duomo where I currently have my humble apartment is normally very quiet in the evenings: the students at the Universita' go home (most of them) and the businesses close up early. This week, though, we had helicopters coming in low twice in the late evenings. Milano is heating up.
Wednesday I noticed, for the first time in months, fully-uniformed local police with their fancy white helmets on all the major street corners, making a show of directing traffic. I was a little concerned at first, thinking that their presence might be due to an unknown threat of terroristic nature, but I was advised of a major conference of European and Asian heads of government taking place in Milano. Some 50 heads of government, from powers large and small, including China, Britain, France--with Italy as host. The idea of the conference is to facilitate trade, and assistance, between regions.
Great, not terrorism. Also good that they don't need the Americans to get involved in every cross-national endeavor--not that we're not interested, or that we are quite ready to dispense with the notion that we are indispensable, or as the politicians like to say, "exceptional". .
Wednesday while lunching in the park near my office --a beautiful day, I might add--I noticed helicopters coming in to the city center ("Il Centro"), I guessed they were from Linate Airport, the one nearest the city. There were also various escorts of police and other unmarked cars with flashing lights moving people around, and the police directing them through traffic as needed. When I went home in the evening, more helicopters.
The real surprise was the sound of helicopters, flying low, at 11 at night. Turns out it was Russian Vladimir Putin, making a big, late entrance after the gala dinner held at the Palazzo Reale (in the Piazza Duomo, just blocks away). Milano mostly has a low ceiling in the Centro, except for the Duomo itself and the ugliest building in town, the Torre Velasca (even closer to my place), so it would not be too hard to navigate, but I have no idea where a helicopter could land (maybe the Arco della Pace, in the Parco Sempione? It's a pretty big open space. The piazza itself could serve, but only if it was cleared--which normally wouldn't be too hard at 11 p.m.)
Putin kept German Chancellor Angela Merkel waiting for two hours for their meeting--Merkel, the closest thing he has to a friend in the European Union. (He had stayed longer than planned in Serbia, where he is a hero.) Then he bopped off to see his buddy Silvio Berlusconi at 2 a.m.--they have a lot in common as media manipulators and politicians with big business interests, probably similar proclivities in partying, too; the only difference being that Berlusconi is outside the local power center, looking to get back in. Putin got up early for a meeting with the Ukrainian president, with a couple leading European lights there to referee and provide any letters of credit Poroshenko might need. The deal was struck, at least for this winter--the one that counts; Ukraine will get its gas, but not on credit. Everyone left at various times Thursday or Friday and things went back to normal.
Saturday, though, the helicopters were back. This time, they were police helicopters, monitoring a large gathering of the Lega Nord. This is a party which has major support in the regions of Northern Italy, and its entire program is based on provocation, status anxiety and xenophobia. Its rise to significance drew upon the resentment of many Northern Italians to the preferential treatment given to the underdeveloped South, along with that region's evident inability to rise despite the assistance. This is due to a number of factors, including organized crime and disorganized local government, but there is also the fact, which both complicates and aggravates the argument, that large numbers of Italians from the South work in the Northern cities. So, the appeal, historically, was to the working-class people of the North who felt the Southerners were taking their jobs, and to the elites in the North who felt their tax dollars were being wasted, and the program was to call for a referendum on separation from the Italian state.
That never happened--it probably never would have won in any significant portion of the North, it was more a bluff and a focus for the party's complaints. At any rate, the LN has changed its program, seemingly accepting the inevitability of staying in Italy (and trying not to antagonize the South quite so much, for purposes of remaining viable on the national level) and turning its focus to repelling the invasion of foreigners.
The term "foreign invaders" does resonate with Italians. The unification of Italy (the "Risorgimento") dates back to the 1860's-1870's; before that there is a long succession of foreign powers occupying most of the peninsula, often using it as a battleground for their power plays. (The 1943-44 battle for Italy between the U.S./Britain allies, relatively benign invaders, and the Nazis, who occupied it militarily when the domestic Fascists were insufficiently vigorous in keeping the Allies out, is a modern example of the model of how it often played out in the medieval and early modern periods). As a nation heavily dependent on tourism, Italy welcomes its visitors (well, usually), but tends to have a different view towards those who choose to stay more permanently.
So, who are these invaders? The rallying point is the "clandestine" immigrants, who come here without legal right to stay or work. In recent months, the volume of these people has increased dramatically, as the sea route from Libya to Italy offered a way into Europe for Africans, and especially recently, Syrians and other Arabs escaping the bloodbath there. There are other routes, such as the Spanish enclaves in Morocco, or the southeastern routes through Bulgaria, Greece, or Cyprus, but this one has had appeal for large numbers. They pay Southern Mediterranean version of the Mexico/US border "coyotes" exorbitant fees for sea passage, then they are crowded into unsafe boats and, with luck, dumped out on Italian shores. Those who still have some means head for the Northern European countries with more job prospects or paid unemployment benefits, especially for those granted political asylum, which leaves the ones in Italy who generally don't have contacts, prospects, but have strong economic needs and usually a willingness to work in any capacity.
Most Italians, including the center-left government, would agree that something needs to be done to stem this disruptive flow--in particular, Italy seeks support from the EU for providing this Halfway House service, and particularly for the naval rescue missions which have been occurring frequently. The LN takes it a step further, though: their leader, Matteo Salvini, called for a suspension of the Schwengen treaty, which allows for the free flow of people within the EU. With Italy still experiencing high unemployment, the fact that people from lower-wage countries like Bulgaria and Romania can come here and work would bother some working-class people. First, though, this is not going to be changed; second, why would they come to Italy, where there are few jobs? It's just something to get people riled up, as is the LN's praise of President Putin, which I really don't get.
Anyway, people in the march looked well stimulated but were not violently so. The main part of the piazza was full as I returned to my home, but I was able to maneuver around them to the back of the Duomo and head toward home--when I ran into the real reason the helicopters were overhead: a counter-demonstration from a smaller leftist group protesting the Lega Nord. They were insulated by a wall of police with shields and the main road in my area, the Via Larga, was blocked off, I would guess to allow them to march through on it. Still, I was able to thread my way through the cordon and all was well.
With the Expo coming next spring--after a rough start, it seems to be on track for the May opening--and a fall lineup of arts to draw attention to it, Milano has chosen to put itself in the spotlight. I'm hoping the helicopter scene will not get out of control.