After a couple of days getting over jet lag, dealing with cobwebs, and laying in supplies, it was time to come down from the mountaintop. I got an invitation on Facebook from my Franco-Italian friend Gilles to attend a talk in the French consolate in Perugia on the roots of anti-European populism. Policy geek that I am (it comes and goes), I hit the “attending” button and got an e-ticket to the event. Yes, a ticket—I was thinking, was this really that popular a thing?
It was. Perugia is a big college town, after all.
But I’ll back up a little. We bought a little apartment in Perugia’s historic center some years ago. We spent a lot of summer vacations based there. I say “based there” because we’d move in, have meals and sleep there, but every chance we got we’d go out, either to the next hill to hang out at a café, or we’d hop in the rental car to go exploring.
So off I went, down the winding road, onto another winding road that eventually took me to my secret parking spot. I purposely avoided the highway that would’ve taken me faster into Perugia. It was nice to be driving a stick shift car again; in fact it was the car that got smashed up last summer, now looking good as new. I had fun downshifting through a few hairpin turns, and less fun being tailgated by sociopaths. I was driving fast enough.
In about 20 minutes, I was back in the old ‘hood, which happens to be the university student quarter of the city. Yeah, you can go back home again. I walked down our street and checked the apartment. All was ok, except for the recalcitrant heater. I’ll have to take some time later to sort it out. I headed out again, aiming for Perugia’s main drag, looking for our bank’s bancomat (ATM to English speakers) and my favorite place to get an espresso standing up at the bar. It was all very very quiet—I realized that I headed out just before the afternoon break was over.
Soon I was joined by people walking around talking, enjoying the springlike weather. It was around 15 degrees C, or 60 degrees in Amurrican, and I window shopped, looked for any changes, because it had been four months. It all looked pretty much the same. I had some time to kill, so I found a park bench and took in some sun, while eavesdropping on the conversation going on at the next bench. The three, including a woman of a certain age wearing a hat that looked like peacock feathers, were psychoanalyzing a common acquaintance. Soon, Ms. Feathers got out her phone, called said acquaintance, and started shouting into it. Mostly she was saying, in Italian, “can you hear me?” (mi senti?). If he couldn’t, everyone within 10 meters could.
Then it was time to head to the French consulate. The building, off of Piazza Morlacchi, looks disconsolate, down on its luck, and the stairway up a flight didn’t change that impression. But when I got in the room, O…M….G. The room was already half full, and we had to sign in. The crowd was a mixture of students, professorial types, and the Italian equivalent of people who might go to a lecture at the 92nd Street Y.
The talk itself featured Corriere della Sera editor Federico Fubini and Bocconi University Prof. Gianmarco Ottaviano, and was entitled “Unione Europa, Perché Odiarla? Alle Radici del Sovranismo Antieuropeista.” That translates as “European Union, Why the Hate? Seeking the roots of anti-european nationalism.” That last word is problematic to me—”sovranismo” is more than just nationalism, and the speakers made a distinction. It refers specifically to the actions of governments like that of Trump and Johnson in the UK, or to what Salvini in Italy preaches. It’s more than an appeal to God, Tradition, and Country in the old days; it’s coupled with anti-immigrant actions like imposing punitive tariffs and withdrawing from international treaties. Anyone out there have anything to add?
In any event, the roots have been out there for us all to see. The EU, they said, is a perfect vehicle for the world that existed in the 1990s, the somewhat fuzzy promises of globalization, a mobile, educated populace, speaking English and tech-talk, seamlessly moving around doing important Internet stuff. Problem is, the world the Eurocrats set up led to wide dislocations as people from Southern Europe moved north for jobs. At the same time, stupid decisions like the US invading Iraq led to the refugee crisis, with thousands braving the sea to reach European shores. Italy in general feels hollowed out, its once huge auto industry, for example, rushing into a marriage with the French Peugeot. And that’s just one big example.
So yeah, there’s a reason for people who aren’t English speaking tech savvy consumers of iPhones and Camembert to feel left out of it. The speakers were charming, yet a lot of what they were saying seemed obvious, at least to me. What we need, if we want to avoid the ranting, racist appeals of Trump and Johnson, are policies that make angry people feel like they’ve been invited to the party. And mealy-mouthed, fiscally prudent centrist policies ain’t gonna do it. Seems to me that we’re at one of those historic junctures that demand structural change, much like FDR did to save US capitalism back in the 1930s. And it doesn’t look like the current crew is going to do it. Are there any grownups out there?