Gianni Alemanno, Rome’s new right-wing mayor, tells John Laughland that it’s time for the Eternal City to adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ approach
There are few people, I imagine, who could make Boris Johnson jealous, but Gianni Alemanno is probably one of them. Two days before Boris’s election as Mayor of London, the conservative Alemanno conquered Rome after the Italian Left had held the city for a decade and a half. His victory was part of a dramatic overall national victory for the Italian Right, whose no-nonsense political discourse may now set the tone for European politics as a whole.
While Boris governs London from a hideous blob of glass and steel, Alemanno reigns over the Eternal City from an exquisite palace on the Capitoline hill. The square outside was laid out by Michelangelo around the great equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius — it says SPQR in huge letters on the doormat; inside the City Hall there are carved Roman bathtubs and statues of Romulus and Remus (and plenty of Madonnas and crucifixes). In the council chamber itself, glowering down from the wall behind the Speaker’s chair, stands a enormous statue of Julius Caesar, just yards from the spot where he was stabbed to death in one of the earliest regime-change operations in human history. If anyone would appreciate or envy the profound historical resonance of this place, it is surely Boris — the enthusiastic classicist and architect of a noted TV series on Ancient Rome.
But the new Mayor does not look happy. Alemanno’s brow is furrowed; he does not smile; he is tense, late and very busy. Slight and wiry, no doubt because of the mountain climbing which is his passion, Alemanno has conquered one of the great peaks of Italian politics only to find that he has ascended a pile of rubble. The previous administration left the city on the verge of bankruptcy. With E8.5 billion of debt, an emergency loan of E500 million had to be advanced by the Italian state to enable the city to pay its legions of employees, 27,000 in total. (When I asked if this total could be downsized, his press attaché looked at me as if I were a fool.)
The city’s finances are not the only mess Alemanno is trying to clear up. His next priority are the vast gypsy encampments which have sprung up all over Rome and other parts of Italy since the early 1990s, and whose numbers have swollen since the EU enlargements of 2004 and 2007. There are about 85 such camps in the capital of which only 11 are legal, with some 20,000 inhabitants living in squalor (including vast numbers of children), often without electricity or running water. The unemployment rate is 90 per cent and when the children are not out begging, they are out stealing. Organised crime also prospers; burglary, car theft and gang murders in Rome have exploded.
Although Alemanno insists that the problem of the camps is one of vagrancy rather than race — he regularly emphasises the need for legality, and constantly rebuts accusations of discrimination — he also accepts that the Italian Right is ‘without complexes’. ‘For us, immigration and crime are two separate questions. But now there is a temporary overlap between the two. Out of the 40,000 crimes committed in Rome every year, 20,000 are committed by non-Italians. The Left has always completely denied any link. The problem in Italy is that for too long there has been an absolute lack of any immigration policy at all.’
To deal with the problem, the Berlusconi government announced that it will compile a register of the camps’ inhabitants, which started on 17 July. Perhaps because they sense the coming sweep of a new broom, I did notice that the various bums who for years used to beg on the Piazza Trilussa and the Ponte Sisto seem to have shimmied off. But although it is a requirement in nearly every EU state that all citizens register their residence with the police, and although this register is being conducted in co-operation with the Red Cross, the Left has gone wild with fury, attacking it as racist. The European Parliament even voted a resolution condemning it as incompatible with European values, which provoked a vigorous response from several Italian ministers, whose Euroscepticism can make Bill Cash look like Kenneth Clarke.
‘The Left always demonises its enemies,’ says Alemanno, and he knows what he is talking about. In the 1980s he headed the youth wing of a party originally founded on the ruins of Mussolini’s regime after the war, and he has been attacked for it ever since. Curiously, the same stigma does not attach to his current party boss and immediate predecessor as youth leader, Gianfranco Fini, the former deputy prime minister who is now speaker of the Italian parliament and who is regularly apostrophised in the eminently establishment Financial Times as ‘a centrist’.
Alemanno insists to me that the Italian political scene has now evolved towards European normality. He says that Silvio Berlusconi’s two main right-of-right coalition partners, the National Alliance, to which he belongs, and the Northern League, are comparable to other mainstream European parties — respectively to the People’s Party in Spain prior to the election of José-Maria Aznar as leader, and to the Bavarian CSU. He also welcomes the modernising work of David Cameron in Britain. And when I ask him which European politician he most admires, the answer comes immediately — ‘Sarkozy’.
Nonetheless, there is a liberty in Italian political discourse which is refreshing after the stifling political correctness of Britain. Just as Italy is the only EU state in which a serving government minister (Umberto Bossi, the head of the Northern League) has ever publicly called the EU a ‘Stalinist organisation’, so the Italian Right tackles political issues with a frankness and sometimes a mischief which sends the Left into orbit — for instance when Silvio Berlusconi boasted that his female ministers were the prettiest in Europe (they are). While the British remain circumspect about even mentioning immigration and crime in the same sentence, despite the spate of knife murders in London, the Italians discuss such matters openly.
Like Sarkozy, Alemanno is pro-American and pro-Israel. But it is precisely here that his political discourse becomes radical for a British ear. He has made ‘zero tolerance’ his slogan and says the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani is a role model for Rome. He also says that the fight against fundament-alism, and the defence of the rights of the individual, are key for Italy even though it has few Muslims. ‘We need a Right based on both tolerance and the protection of identity — national identity.’ He even chairs a body called Kadima World Italia, a friendship association for the political party created by Ariel Sharon. ‘Are you a neoconservative, then?’ I ask, and he replies that American categories cannot be applied to European politics. But he has multiplied his overtures towards Israel and the Jewish community in Rome (as well as receiving the Palestinian leader), and says, ‘To defend Israel is to defend the values of the West.’
So perhaps it is Italy which is showing the way for Europe, rather than following its model. At certain points in European his-tory, the apparent political backwater of Italy has in fact been in the avant-garde — without Cavour, no Bismarck. At the end of our talk, Alemanno takes me out on to the balcony next to his office, which commands a breathtaking view over the Roman Forum, from the Arch of Septimus Severus baking in the July heat hundreds of feet below, to the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill in the distance. ‘When you stand here, you feel that you are at the centre of the world,’ he says. He may well be right.