Daisy Dunn

Can Italy reverse its falling birth rate? 

Plus: in praise of Roman poet Martial

Can Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni succeed where the ancient Romans failed? Image: Tiziana Fabi / AFP / Getty Images

Anne McElvoy is on the road again, exploring the state of modern Europe. Following her Radio 4 programme, The Reinvention of Germany in April, the Politico journalist has travelled to Padua, in northern Italy, where reactions to the rise of the right-wing populist Giorgia Meloni appear to vary. Is the 46-year-old PM a breath of fresh air – the best chance Italy has for a future – or a hypocritical dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist?

The reinvention (or rather restoration) of Italy is very much Meloni’s goal. Clinging to the familiar principles of faith, flag and family, she has eschewed measures that would allow those born in Italy to define themselves as Italian, ostensibly believing that to be Italian is to have Italian blood. Addressing the falling birth rate – Italy now has one of the lowest in Europe at 1.24 – she has even introduced financial rewards for large families. And yet, one of the residents interviewed for the programme could not help pointing out that Meloni is a single mother who, in his words, ‘does not appear to be a particularly observant Catholic’.

That fertility is also a men’s issue has been broadly overlooked in Italy as elsewhere in the world

Bonuses for bigger families do not have a great record of success in Italy. Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, provided numerous incentives for wealthy Romans to breed, only to suffer a popular backlash. One of the problems, as a demographer from the University of Padua explained, is that while Italians love la mamma, la mamma increasingly needs, or indeed wants, to work. That fertility is also a men’s issue has been broadly overlooked in Italy as elsewhere in the world.

McElvoy – always a clear and amiable interviewer – spoke to a couple of successful childless Italian businesswomen, but it would have been good to hear the male perspective.

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