Renzi in the firing line
Scandals reminiscent of the Berlusconi era have put the prime minister under sustained pressure, writes Toby Abse
The resignation of Federica Guidi - for two years the minister of economic development in the Partito Democratico-led coalition government of Matteo Renzi - has created a major political crisis. Guidi was forced to quit as a result of intercepted phone calls to her fiancé, Gianluca Gemelli, in which she revealed privileged information about changes in the law of immediate benefit to his business interests. These related to an amendment which would have speeded up oil supplies through bypassing environmental regulations.
Renzi initially assumed that forcing Guidi’s abrupt resignation in time for the main evening news bulletin on the principal state television channel on March 31, and presenting it as a momentary personal weakness of a woman excessively attached to her partner, would lance the boil.1 This assumption was probably incorrect in terms of day-to-day politics, even if the failure of the opposition parties to unite behind a single motion of no confidence in the entire government2 means that it is unlikely that Renzi will be defeated in the Senate, where his majority is wafer-thin and now frequently dependent on Denis Verdini’s highly dubious group of recent defectors from Forza Italia.
Perhaps more significantly, however, the Guidi scandal exposes the class nature of this government - even to those who failed to acknowledge the viciously anti-working class and anti-trade union character of Renzi’s appalling Jobs Act, which eroded most of the remaining gains of the Workers’ Statute of 1970. It was a clumsily concealed front for Confindustria (the Italian CBI) in general and the oil companies in particular.
Federica Guidi should never have been appointed as a minister - especially in what is supposedly a left-of-centre government - and a case could be made that the conflict of interests between her own business career and her government post should have ruled her out even in a mainstream bourgeois government that took such matters seriously. The Renzi version of the story - seeing Guidi’s behaviour as some love-struck moment of madness - is preposterous. This woman had a long business career behind her before her appointment - a career far more impressive in terms of both financial expertise and political skills than that of her fiancé.
Guidi is the daughter of a former vice-president of Confindustria, Guidalberto Guidi, and eventually became managing director of the family business, Ducati Energia. In 2002-05 she was president of the Young Entrepreneurs of Emilia-Romagna, as well as Vice-President of the region’s Entrepreneurs. In 2005 she rose to become national vice-president of the Young Entrepreneurs of Confindustria and by 2008 she was president. In 2008-11, she, like her father before her, served a term as vice-president of Confindustria, which must have greatly increased her range of associates amongst Italian business people, although her spectacular earlier career in the organisation had already demonstrated considerable networking skills.
In February 2014 she was nominated minister of economic development by Renzi. Whilst some readers may remember the stress Renzi placed on gender balance in forming his government,3 given that Guidi is not and never has been a member of the PD or any of its predecessor parties, and thus Renzi could have been under no political obligation to her, it is impossible to believe that he needed to appoint such a blatant embodiment of capital to such a key economic post. Moreover, somebody with a background in the energy sector was highly unlikely to be impartial in apportioning any government contracts in spheres linked to it, given Ducati Energia’s longstanding dealings with ENI, the prime Italian corporation in the oil and gas industries - and even less likely to show the slightest sympathy for any environmentalists or local authorities that cut across the interests of the large oil and gas companies.
Whilst Renzi was clearly embarrassed by Guidi’s leakage of confidential information to Gemelli - and his immediate transmission of this to the French-dominated Total oil company, from whom Gemelli obtained a lucrative €2.5 million subcontract in exchange for services rendered - the embarrassment seems largely a product of Guidi’s recklessness in using the telephone. Renzi himself would have learnt from the wiretaps that helped to undermine Berlusconi that some matters are best spoken face to face.
Moreover, Renzi, as newly elected secretary of the PD, had been determined to undermine his predecessor, Enrico Letta, by any means available. He had joined in the calls for the resignation of the latter’s justice minister, Annamaria Cancellieri, when she was found to have made compromising calls to her longstanding friends in the Ligresti family, when they found themselves facing criminal charges for the second time in two decades. The similarity of the two cases did not escape Renzi nor did the retrospective political capital he could make by pointing out that Cancellieri never resigned, whereas he himself quickly put an end to Guidi’s political career.
However, when it came to the substance of the now notorious amendment, neither Renzi nor his de facto deputy prime minister, Maria Elena Boschi, have shown the slightest regret. Boschi, who is supposed to check all amendments to laws submitted to parliament, has said she would gladly sign it off again tomorrow, whilst Renzi has stressed how important it allegedly is in terms of job creation.4
The substantive matters at the heart of the scandal are: drilling for oil in Basilicata; the construction of an oil pipeline from Basilicata to the Puglian port of Taranto; some extension of Taranto’s docks to accommodate oil tankers; the creation of a new oil refinery at Taranto; and - centrally - the evasion of environmental regulations for the disposal of toxic waste products created by all this in Basilicata. As I pointed out in an earlier article about the Taranto steel works,5 the unfortunate city has already been subjected to environmental devastation, and an abnormal number of tumour cases and early deaths, by unfettered capitalism.
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the Taranto municipal government and the Puglian regional government have done their utmost to obstruct these schemes, even if the authorities in Basilicata - especially PD regional president Marcello Pittella, whose brother is a major figure in the PD group in the European parliament - are extreme Renzi loyalists, with no concerns about the environmental damage that their constituents will suffer and in all probability have already suffered.
It is this local opposition in Puglia that led Renzi to take a direct personal interest in the matter, showing his determination to override local environmental concerns, just as he has with the opposition of the maverick leftwing mayor of Naples, Luigi De Magistris, to his plans for the site of the Bagnoli steel works. The Fatto Quotidiano newspaper, whose investigative journalism has been a thorn in the side of Renzi’s government, has suggested that both Total and Shell, along with various British and French diplomats, have lobbied Renzi directly over the oil-related matters in Puglia and Basilicata.6 However, they have argued that Renzi did not need much persuasion to take a line in favour of the large foreign oil companies.
Incidentally any claim that drilling in the new oilfield will be of benefit to Italy in terms of its energy needs, lessening its dependence on Libyan oil or Russian gas, is totally nonsensical, since the oil is intended for export, not for the Italian domestic market. The affair exposes the sanctimonious hypocrisy of Renzi’s claim that Italy is rapidly moving towards clean energy and renewables - a purely propagandist assertion, contradicted by the publicly available statistics - which he repeated during the very American tour whose ending was spoilt when he received the urgent news from Rome about the Guidi wiretap, soon to become public knowledge.
It is, of course, no accident that the PD under Renzi’s leadership has taken the position of recommending abstention in the April 17 referendum called on the initiative of a number of regional governments, who want a ban on further drilling within a 12-mile radius of the Italian coast when the current concessions already awarded to the oil companies run out. The PD recommendation for abstention, strenuously opposed by the more principled elements amongst the party’s leftwing minority, is a cynical replica of the tactic frequently adopted by Silvio Berlusconi in the face of referenda, aimed at preventing the 50% minimum quorum of voters from being reached. Renzi is not genuinely uncertain about the question or really of the belief that the issue is too complicated for an uninformed electorate to decide upon; he is merely the willing puppet of the big oil companies. To his intense annoyance the Guidi scandal is likely to increase the turnout and thus the chance of a binding ‘yes’ vote - the kind of come-uppance that Berlusconi received from the electorate in the referenda of 2011.
Apart from the referendum, the reaction of Renzi and his acolytes to the Guidi scandal is increasingly panic-stricken and vicious, to the point of using L’Unita - the former communist daily, which in its revived form has become a dreary public relations agency for Renzi - to defame Roberto Saviano. This distinguished anti-Camorra activist - who has lived under police protection for 10 years - was labelled a “little local mafioso” for daring to cast doubt on Maria Elena Boschi’s integrity. The PD’s founder and first leader, Walter Veltroni, has condemned the attack on Saviano, but Renzi has not apologised.
Boschi was referred to in the Guidi-Gemelli phone calls by her first name, and she was summoned by investigating magistrates, who interviewed her on April 4. She had already been under pressure because of her role in introducing a law that saved a number of banks at the expense of their small shareholders’ life-time savings. Such a law would have made victims of the often elderly, naive investors who had cynically been sold junk bonds by officials from failing banks rooted in small provincial towns, where they faced little competition and enjoyed massive local trust.
On top of this, there were very particular circumstances which added to Boschi’s unpopularity. Her own father, Pier Luigi Boschi, had been for years on the board of directors of the Arezzo-based Banca Etruria, one of the four collapsing banks saved by the ‘bail-in’ law, and was for part of the period when its affairs were going seriously awry the vice-director of the bank. He has twice been amongst bank officials subjected to substantial fines in successive civil actions by the Banca d’Italia and is currently one of those under criminal investigation in connection with the bank’s collapse.
It is doubtful whether Renzi’s premiership could long survive another resignation, by the most famous of his female ministers, and his desire to protect Boschi at all costs has led him to make public attacks on the Basilicatan magistrates all too reminiscent of Berlusconi in his pomp.
1. Guidi had resisted calls for her departure for some hours with the shamelessness of a Malcolm Rifkind.
2. There is one motion from the Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement - M5S) and another one from the rightwing bloc of Forza Italia, the Lega Nord and the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia.
3. See my article, ‘New beginning signals further attacks’ (Weekly Worker February 27 2014).
4. In reality it would have created some short-term jobs in drilling and construction, whilst destroying farmers’ livelihoods for ever, and probably damaging the tourist industry too.
5. ‘Exploitation, despoliation, corruption’ Weekly Worker August 6 2015.
6. According to the Fatto Quotidiano, the British ambassador has admitted her role, but claimed that it is a normal part of her duties to help British companies in their dealings in Italy.