Fri, Nov 04, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Austerity ending ‘la dolce vita’

For many Italians, the good life looks like it’s about to vanish as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi imposes tough fiscal measures to reduce the country’s alarming 1.8 trillion euro debt

By Tom Kington  /  The Guardian, ROME

Illustration: Mountain People

In the luxurious Hassler Hotel at the top of the Spanish Steps, Rome’s fabled dolce vita is alive and well.

“There is an aesthetic of beauty and balance here that is not subject to the fluctuations around us,” said owner Roberto Wirth, referring to the financial crisis now imperiling economies around the world.

Down the steps and along the Via del Babuino, art and antiques dealer Romolo Brandimarte proudly pointed to a Roman sarcophagus on display worth more than 500,000 euros (US$685,400).

“Our customers, who are often industrialists, haven’t gone away,” he said.

A little further down, at the Hotel De Russie, where limos were lined up to take stars such as Hollywood actor Richard Gere off to the red carpet at the Rome film festival, it was the same story.

“We are an oasis; we are not suffering,” a spokeswoman said, adding that the 11,000 euro a night rooftop suite was always fully booked.

However, on Friday the expensive peace and quiet to be found in the De Russie’s private garden were spoiled by the jarring sound of a rant echoing across Rome’s rooftops.

Anyone looking down from the huge terrace of the rooftop suite would have seen thousands of furious pensioners in the streets, protesting about the way la dolce vita — the sweet life — has turned very sour.

Marching into the nearby Piazza del Popolo for a rally, waving flags and clutching sandwiches wrapped in foil, the pensioners were furious at Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s plan to whittle away at pension rights to help reduce Italy’s staggering 1.8 trillion euro debt and please the markets, which have seized on Italy as the next weak link in Europe after Greece.

“I get 1,100 euros a month, and like 80 percent of the protesters here today, I use it to support my son who is on a temporary contract,” said Ruben Cocci, 66, a former textiles worker from the Tuscan town of Prato.

Increasing the pension age from 65 to 67 was one of the measures offered last week by Berlusconi to placate European leaders worried that Italy is not doing enough to help save the eurozone.

Also contained in the last minute “letter of intent” the prime minister took to Brussels were measures to liberalize Italy’s closed shop and ease red tape to free the economy, which is expected to grow by just 0.3 percent next year, a full point lower than it predicted in June.

With 8 million Italians now officially living in poverty, EU commissioners are expected to keep a close eye on whether the scandal-hit prime minister can deliver.

Berlusconi neatly sidestepped the question of Italy’s so-called length-of-service pensions, which are calculated on the basis of years worked, and often lead to early retirements, a practice fiercely defended by his coalition partner, the Northern League — no surprise given the number of early retirees in northern Italy.

“I may have retired at 52, but I started work at 14, like many people back then,” said Wanda Da Ros, a retired shoemaker who had traveled down from Treviso for the rally. “I get 650 euros a month, which supports my family — so please tell the world we are not greedy.”

Moving off down Via del Babuino, past the Tiffany jewelery store and toward the rally, Da Ros navigated between local ladies with poodles and a beggar praying in the gutter in front of a collecting tin.

Further down the street, pensioner and protester Franco Staderini, 67, was calling for tax rises, not pension cuts.

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