ITALIAN GOVERNMENT SENDS WEAPONS TO NORTHERN IRAQ

By Marianne Arens

Last week, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi (Democratic Party, PD) paid a lightning visit to Iraq. In doing so, he was following in the footsteps of German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Social Democratic Party, SPD). At the same time, parliamentary committees in Rome voted for the first time to deliver weapons to the Kurdish fighters of the Peshmerga.

Renzi came to Iraq not only as Italian head of government, but also as a representative of the European Union (EU), whose chairmanship accrues to Italy in the second half of 2014. “Europe has to be in Iraq these days, otherwise it would not be Europe,” Renzi said in a meeting with former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in the Iraqi capital on August 20.

Having travelled from Baghdad to Erbil, he visited a refugee camp there and pointed out that Italy had already dispatched several planeloads of relief aid. Designated prime minister Haidar Al Abadi and Iraqi president Fouad Mazuum also met Renzi for talks, drawing attention several times to “the friendship between our peoples”.

Renzi is acting in close cooperation with the German foreign office. On the same day, last Wednesday, the committees for defence and foreign affairs in both Italian parliamentary chambers (senate and house of representatives) used identical arguments to justify a vote for the fastest possible delivery of arms and munitions to the Kurds in northern Iraq.

Speeches from Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti and Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini made it clear that a concerted EU initiative is underway. “The Mediterranean and the Middle East are facing a danger, which is also threatening Europe and Italy,” Foreign Minister Mogherini told the press. She is the candidate proposed by Renzi to succeed Lady Catherine Ashton as EU high representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. According to Mogherini, Europe and Italy have “the political and moral duty to protect civilians.”

Defence Minister Pinotti told the senate that Italy was not the only country active in the region, but was there together with France, England and Germany. Italy would not only supply Iraq with weapons; it would also provide strong diplomatic support. Pinotti raised the prospect of a European summit on the situation in Iraq and the region, and announced that she would be pressing for an international summit conference. She added that the EU was working “in constant communication with actors in the region and with countries that have a clear and direct influence on Iraq,” citing as examples Iran, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

Propaganda justifying arms deliveries on humanitarian grounds manifests itself in particularly absurd forms in Italy. For example, Prime Minister Renzi sent out a photo on Twitter posing with refugee children, with the comment, “War shouldn’t be declared on children”.

The truth is that the government is having problems justifying its cynicism and duplicity. While shedding crocodile tears over refugee problems in northern Iraq, it intensifies its attacks on refugees who want to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

Interior Minister Angelino Alfano of the right-wing Nuovo Centrodestra party (NCD), has announced the government’s intention to close the so-called refugee rescue operation, Mare Nostrum (Our Sea). “Mare Nostrum won’t be having a second anniversary,” he said, adding that the programme had indeed been worthwhile, but was planned from the start as only a temporary measure.

Partially supported by EU funds, Operation Mare Nostrum was launched by the Italian coast guard in October 2013, when almost 400 people drowned in a single day in the disaster off the island of Lampedusa. Although it served to build up Italy’s armed forces, it has also contributed to the rescuing of nearly 100,000 refugees at sea in the first half of 2014. Some 1,900 people were rescued last weekend alone, according to coast guard reports.

The fact that a large proportion of the refugees are people from Libya, Syria and the whole Middle East—including many Palestinians fleeing Israeli bombardment—clearly demonstrates the real character of the alleged “humanitarianism” of the Western powers. These people are in flight because NATO together with US and European imperialism are involved in bloody wars in their countries, supporting such wars directly and indirectly with weapons.

The refugees in Italy are deprived of any legal security or hopeful future prospects. Those who find work often end up as low-wage slaves employed by the Mafia in fruit harvesting.

The arms shipments to northern Iraq are in fact used to beat the drums for war, whip up nationalism and promote state rearmament.

When he took office in February, Renzi used a two-hour speech before the senate to call for the “coming together of the nation”, the “end of ideological struggles” and the “courage to make radical decisions”. He announced massive attacks on the social services and state administration, as well as the reduction of employers’ ancillary wage costs and business taxes. The country had become “rust-ridden, bogged down and encumbered by a suffocating bureaucracy,” Renzi proclaimed at the time.

Since then, the economic and social crisis has intensified. Now, Renzi wants to exploit military intervention in Iraq to renew and sharpen his attack on Italian workers.

The situation is already catastrophic for many workers. A large section of the working class are condemned to a permanently makeshift existence. The online newspaper L Informazione has exposed the entrenched poverty conditions in Sicily. These include accounts of workers who can no longer afford accommodation costs and have to sleep with their wives and children in cars. Large families consisting of parents living with their adult children, who had children themselves, are forced to survive on the pension of a single retired worker. In another case, a 10-member extended family live in a three-room apartment and have to get by on a single €800 pension.

One-and-a-half million people, mainly in the south of Italy, officially live below the poverty line. In reality, the figure is much higher. Young people are particularly affected, with some 44 percent between the ages of 15 and 24 officially unemployed. As for pensioners, Mario Monti’s pension reform raised the retirement age two years ago, drastically increasing poverty in old age. According to the Istat statistics agency, 30 percent of retirees today are so poor that they have to do without medical treatment.

Workers are threatened with mass layoffs and brutal wage cuts—for example, at Fiat, Electrolux and Alitalia, as well as in the public service. The Renzi government’s “Jobs Act” labour reform policy ensures that employees will more easily be sacked, public service jobs more easily dismantled, and temporary work contracts extended to three years.

Since the first half of 2014, Italy has once again been fully in the grips of recession. Pressure is therefore mounting on Renzi to attack the working class even more viciously. The Corriere della Sera daily newspaper thus calls on Renzi to proceed in a more determined manner, writing: “Why isn’t he going ahead with the labour reform, as he promised?”

In several drawn-out meetings, Silvio Berlusconi and trade union leaders have pledged Renzi their support. Nichi Vendola’s pseudo-left party, SEL, is also backing the war and crisis policies of the bourgeoisie. In an article by two pro-SEL journalists, Renzi was urged to campaign strongly for a reform of the United Nations. The “task of exercising an international police operation,” should not be left to the Kurds, they wrote. Instead, the UN had to be upgraded to enable it “to intervene with weapons to defend unarmed civilians, when that is necessary.”

SECRETARY KERRY MEETS WITH ITALIAN FOREIGN MINISTER MOGHERINI

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SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon, everybody, I guess almost good evening. Federica, benvenuta a Washington. We’re happy to have you here. I’m very delighted to welcome Foreign Minister Mogherini to Washington. We met in Rome about two months ago, I think it was, and in the best Italian-American tradition, we bonded over food as well as good discussions.

At the time, we were co-hosting an event that I might mention here which we consider important, which is support for the USA Pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015, which is focused on the challenge of feeding the planet, of food security and energy for life. And we believe it’s important to participate in this. We look forward to it. And I think when we consider the huge numbers of young people growing the populations of countries throughout the world, but particularly in Africa, South Central Asia, and elsewhere, the challenge of food security is critical, and we’re very grateful to Italy for hosting this affair and for highlighting the importance of this challenge.

I think everybody here knows, and if they don’t, I will restate it clearly – Italy is one of the United States’ most important allies. We, I think, can safely say that our alliance has never been stronger than it is at this moment. And today, we spoke about some of the most difficult challenges that we face at this moment of time – from Ukraine to Syria to Libya, and always the challenge of Iran and the nuclear program, and the potential of peace – still a concern for peace in the Middle East.

May 25th, we believe, we are convinced, is a real opportunity for the people of Ukraine to express their will through the ballot box. And Ukraine’s future absolutely should not be determined at the barrel of a gun. We all stand together, united for the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine, and we don’t believe that ballots that are marked in Moscow or referenda directed from there should decide Ukraine’s future.

We deplore today’s violence and senseless killings, and the separatists who are very busy spreading fear and violence in Donetsk and Luhansk really need to answer the real call of the people of Ukraine, which is under the banner of “Let us vote.” And that vote, the real vote, will take place in the election on May 25th.

The other key step in the path to heal the tensions politically are the Ukrainian-led, OSCE-supported national dialogue and the roundtables that are to take place across Ukraine. These will focus on decentralization and constitutional reform. And the United States very strongly supports this process. We’re in constant touch with the OSCE itself, with Foreign Minister Steinmeier and others, and with Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia, in efforts to try to encourage this process to take hold as fully as possible, as fast as possible. And we also welcome the OSCE’s appointment of a veteran diplomat, Walter Ischinger, Ambassador Ischinger, in order to serve as a mediator in that process.

So let me be clear: We expect to see, want to see, and will work to achieve real de-escalation, disarmament, evacuation of occupied buildings in exchange for amnesty and dialogue. And that is what is called for in the Geneva statement of the 17th last month, and also the OSCE roadmap. We hope that the OSCE will support the Government of Ukraine in facilitating these steps as rapidly as possible.

Finally, I want to welcome the news that our friends in the European Union have applied additional sanctions on Russia – Russians, Russian individuals and Russian companies involved in the occupation of Crimea. The EU has made it clear that should the May 25th elections be disrupted in Ukraine, then there will be additional sanctions. So Russia, we would say – and we don’t say this punitively, but Russia really does face a choice, and the choice is to allow the people of Ukraine to determine their own future without interference from outside and with efforts by all of us to try to assist in de-escalating the tension, removing people from buildings, pulling back security forces, counterterrorism initiatives – all of those things – in order to give the people of Ukraine the ability to breathe through the democratic process.

We also want to be clear: There are still threats to a Europe whole, free and at peace. And because of that, our commitment to Article 5 of the NATO Charter remains ironclad. NATO territory is inviolable, and we will defend every piece of it. That’s why we are deploying United States military assets to the region and that’s why the United States is encouraging our allies both to contribute to the reassurance effort that is currently underway as well as to meet their NATO commitments with respect to defense spending and planning.

The foreign minister and I also discussed briefly the efforts to eliminate serious chemical weapons. We greatly appreciate Italy’s assistance in eliminating the Syrian chemical weapons, including offering the port of Gioia Tauro for loading the materials onto the vessel Cape Bay – Cape Ray. And I want to emphasize this really underscores Italy’s very strong commitment to this initiative, to help us destroy these weapons in the most secure and safe environment possible.

I might underscore, we are currently slightly over 92 percent – 92 percent – of all of the chemical weapons of Syria declared being removed. There are still challenges with respect to some knowledge about undeclared, but at the moment we need to insist that the Syrian regime fully comply with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and the UN Security Council Resolution 2118. And we will remain vigilant until this is achieved.

The last issue we discussed was the issue of Libya. I again thank Italy for hosting the donor conference in March, the ministerial conference that we held on Libya. The United States and Italy are very committed to the transitional process that needs to take hold even more in Libya, and we will continue to support the Libyan Government as it works overtime to be able to provide a democratic process and to deliver both good governance and security to the people of Libya.

So, Federica, thank you for taking time to be with us today. I know you have to fly back to join all of us at the meeting in London, and then fly back again, so we appreciate enormously your efforts to be here today. And more especially, we appreciate the good work we’re doing together. Thank you.

FOREIGN MINISTER MOGHERINI: Thank you, John. Thank you for welcoming me here in my first official visit abroad – and that was not by chance. That was a clear sign of showing how strong our – how good, how excellent our relation is, both bilaterally and in the international organizations we are in together. Actually, you visited Rome, I think, twice in the last couple of months. We were extremely happy to have you in the conference on Libya in the beginning of March, as we were extremely happy to host you during the visit of President Obama last month in Rome. I felt it was the most natural thing to do to pay my first visit in Washington to show how strong and excellent our work together is in all fields.

Let me start by saying that I have been flying here directly from Brussels, where yesterday we had the foreign council on – whose main concern was Ukraine; how important it is that we speak with one voice, and we act in the same way. I want to thank you because I have experienced in this first month of my mandate good – extremely good coordination whenever it comes to facing a difficult situation.

I think that part of the important response that we’ve given to the crisis in Ukraine has been in – speaking with one voice, both in Europe, across the Atlantic, in the G7, in the UN. And I think that has to stay our first priority, to speak with one voice when it comes to dealing with the crisis in Ukraine.

At the council yesterday in Brussels, we decided exactly on the same line as you described – a mix of instruments for making sure that a solution to the crisis is found in the most effective and quick way. First priority is to stop the violence on the ground, to de-escalate, as was stated in the Geneva agreement of the 17th, and as we should make sure that it is implemented on the ground.

We all agree and we’ve always all agreed on the fact that there is no military solution to the crisis that is extremely concerning for all of us. And the political answer to this crisis is a mix of creating the conditions for internal and external dialogue, the national dialogue that is going to start tomorrow, and that the leadership of the Ukrainian Government with the full support of the U.S.A., with the full support of the European Union, and following your words also on the United States and the international community, and on the other side, sanctions that always say it’s a way putting political pressure to get the result, which is a political solution to the crisis.

But now the first objective for us is decreasing tensions, stopping the violence, making the elections of the 25th happen, and making them a success, and at the same time, supporting the Ukrainian Government to follow up the process of additional reforms in the inclusive way in which they have committed to do.

As you said, we discussed also all the other crises that are open around us. Ukraine is extremely important, especially for us Europeans, but I know also for you how deep the concern is. Still, it should not shadow other crises that are extremely dramatic around us. Starting from Syria, three years of war, the need for re-launching a way of finding a political stop to the conflict, finding ways of giving humanitarian assistance, because there are people dying, children dying, and fleeing from the country. The surrounding countries that are by miracle sustaining this conflict – I think of Lebanon – and the process of dismantling the chemical arsenal that we are – happy is not the appropriate word, I guess, to describe that, but probably proud to contribute to by offering the Port of Gioia Tauro for the – for this operation. And again, it’s extremely important that at least this path is at least partially a successful one.

As you said, we discussed Libya, shared the concern for a situation that in terms of security on the ground, in terms of control of the territory and of the borders of the country, is extremely worrying and unstable. The way is trying to support the internal democratic dynamics, political dynamics in the country, so that they manage to get to forming a government able to deal with the control of the country and of the territory itself. For us, it’s a priority, and I know that we have you and all the international community at our side in trying to find the most useful way on that.

Thank you again for your commitment to Expo. We appreciate it very much, and we are willing to host you next year, but for sure before that in Milan for Expo 2015. It’s a great occasion for us to underline how much we can do together to fight one of the most dramatic elements of our time. On one side over-nutrition; on the other side, people dying, for hunger. There’s a contradiction there that we have to face and try to solve, and Expo is going to be a great chance for the international community to face this problem together and try to solve it and to move it forward.

So thank you very much.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Thank you very much, Federica. We appreciate it very, very much. And let me – we are honored that you selected to come here first. We really appreciate that. And it is a sign of the special relationship and the way we work together, so I’m very grateful. We all are.

FOREIGN MINISTER MOGHERINI: Thank you, but it’s natural. That’s natural.

MS. PSAKI: The first question will be from Roz Jordan of Al-Jazeera.

QUESTION: Thank you, Madam Minister. Welcome to Washington. And Mr. Secretary, three brief questions. First, regarding Syria: As we all know, Lakhdar Brahimi has stepped aside as the special envoy for Syria. He is the second person to fail in this job after Kofi Annan. Can a third special envoy succeed where he and Annan have failed? The SNC, for its part, is adamant that a political calculation cannot be brought about unless its armed component does receive weapons from the West, and it says it will be making that request when all of you gather in London on Thursday. Will the U.S. support the SNC’s request? Does the U.S. believe that the SNC is mistaken in this regard?

Regarding Nigeria, the U.S. coordination team led by the State Department is now on the ground; surveillance planes are in the air. Does the U.S. have a better sense of where these kidnapped girls and their kidnappers are? Will the Nigerian army have the capability of rescuing them, if indeed they are located via intelligence and surveillance methods? And is the U.S. prepared to offer its own troops to assist the Nigerian army? Is Abuja willing to have that sort of assistance?

And finally, the Saudi Government has invited the Iranian foreign minister, Mr. Zarif, to Riyadh for meetings. Does the U.S. welcome this? Is this the first sign of a rapprochement? Did the U.S. have anything to do with this invitation extended by the Saudi foreign minister? Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: I think there were about 9 or 10 questions there. (Laughter.)

FOREIGN MINISTER MOGHERINI: All yours. (Laughter.) I’m not kidding.

QUESTION: She already spoke on Syria.

SECRETARY KERRY: First of all, Mr. Brahimi did not fail. It’s a great mistake here to place on a peacemaking effort the notion that the failure of an envoy or a special envoy, or the inability to be able to reach agreement is the fault of the envoy. It’s not. It’s the fault of a party – Assad – who will not negotiate, who absolutely refused to negotiate at every single session.

Now, when this was announced in – I think it was March, April of a year ago, when I went to Moscow and Sergei Lavrov joined in the announcement with President Putin’s support, it was because at that point in time, there was a sense that there was a need to negotiate. And the Russians supported that negotiation with the belief that that was the only way to settle this.

Regrettably in the intervening months after that, as everybody knows, there was a growth in the number of extremist groups who were trying to remove Assad, and then an increasing fight between the extremists and the moderate opposition. So whether it was Ahrar al-Sham or al-Nusra or al-Qaida or the Iraqi State Levant and so forth, those groups began to detract, and frankly that detracted from the effort. In addition to that, the intervening time also saw Hezbollah, a terrorist organization, cross international lines to go in and actively fight on the ground, in addition to which there are IRGC forces – Iranian forces – on the ground in Syria.

So the dynamics shifted on the ground between the time of the announcement and Mr. Brahimi’s efforts, and I applaud his efforts. He patiently and diligently worked to give the parties an opportunity to be able to negotiate in good faith in pursuance of the Geneva agreement, which was to have a transition government that could move to a peaceful resolution. The opposition showed up; the opposition did a better job than the regime of making its case. And the opposition consistently tried to adhere to the rules of talking about the future with respect to a transition.

The Assad regime never did. And so this represents a continuation of the stubborn clinging to power of a man who is willing to drop barrel bombs on his people, to gas them, to shell artillery on innocent civilians, to starve people in their homes, and somehow claim a right to be able to run a country. I don’t think the civilized world is going to stand for that, and so there will be a continuation of an effort to put pressure on Mr. Assad.

President Obama is continuing to support the moderate opposition. He has increased the support to the moderate opposition, as have others, with a belief that we need to get to a negotiation at some point in time. And when the parties are ready to negotiate, then a mediator will have a chance to be able to help them do so, and everyone can succeed by giving the people of Syria an opportunity to reclaim their future.

With respect to Nigeria, our people are on the ground. We are proud to be contributing to the effort in order to help find these young women. And as everybody knows, there was recent evidence demonstrating that at least a certain group of them were together and in one place at a certain period of time. We don’t know exactly when. What I can guarantee you is that we will make every effort possible in order to help free those young women, and we are there helping to do that now. I’m not going to discuss what mechanism or methodology may or may not be used in order to do so, except to say that we are committed to this effort together with, I think, decent, civilized people all around the world who think this is a barbaric, horrendous act against the conscience of people everywhere. And so the President has all options with respect to the future. We’re dealing with the government of another country. That’s always got its diplomatic requirements.

With respect to the Saudi invite, no, the United States did not have anything to do with this invitation, but we’re delighted to see our good friends, the Saudis, engaged in diplomacy that may or may not be able to add to any number of different possibilities in the region. They have a longstanding difficulty in that relationship, but it is completely in keeping with their prerogatives to be able to reach out and engage. And we encourage it, we welcome it, and we hope that it might be able to produce something with respect to one of several conflicts in which the Iranians could perhaps have an impact.

MS. PSAKI: The next question will be from Paolo Valentino.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have only one question for each of you. Mr. Secretary, I’m afraid my question will be a bit out of context, but the subject has been vividly discussed in the last 24 hours in Italy and in Europe. In his recently released book, former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner claims that in 2011, some European officials approached him asking for help in a scheme to force Silvio Berlusconi out of power, and that the answer was no.

Now, despite the fact – I quote – “that it would have been desirable to have better leadership in Europe,” as a member of the cabinet, do you have anything to say on behalf of the Administration? And as then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, do you have any recollection of having any hint or echo of this subject at the time?

For Minister Mogherini, Ukraine: Today, you sounded a note of cautious optimism about the possibility of launching a national dialogue based on the apparent acceptance from both Kyiv and Moscow of the OSCE roadmap. Now, how does this square with the growing violence which, even today, claimed some victims? And did you, in your talks, discuss the eventual possibility of floating the idea of a UN-sponsored interposition force in Ukraine? Thank you.

FOREIGN MINISTER MOGHERINI: I got the easier question. No, we didn’t discuss that option. It is not on the ground so far. As concerns the first part of the question, it is exactly because violence on the ground is not diminishing that we need to support a national dialogue effort. Tomorrow, as far as I know, the first national dialogue exercise will start in Ukraine. Obviously, it is an extremely difficult process. It is not easy. It is not to be given for granted that it works. But still, we are putting all of our political pressure on all sides, including, obviously, Russia, to be coherent – words and actions – and allow, first, violence on the ground to stop, and second, Ukrainians to talk to each other and to find their way of ruling the country as one country. We have said from the beginning territorial integrity, unity, sovereignty of Ukraine is our goal. For doing that, for achieving that, we need internal dialogue and the dialogue with all the regional actors relevant.

I’m sorry, I guess I have to repeat something in Italian for the Italian press. That’s right. If I manage to say the same things. (Laughter.) I’ll try. (In Italian.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Io non so niente.

FOREIGN MINISTER MOGHERINI: I said the same. I said the same. I said the same. Exactly the same.

QUESTION: Did you read the book?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. No, I was not – I – absolutely, this is the first I’ve ever heard of it. Thank you. Grazie tanto.

FOREIGN MINISTER MOGHERINI: And can I –

SECRETARY KERRY: Honestly, I hadn’t – I knew nothing as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and I know nothing about it now. You have to ask somebody else.

FOREIGN MINISTER MOGHERINI: Can I add just one thing that I forgot to say – two small things that I forgot to say –

SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, yes.

FOREIGN MINISTER MOGHERINI: – in those remarks? Sorry, it’s a little bit of jetlag coming in. One is the dimension that we discussed and I wanted to say publicly how much we appreciate the efforts that John has been putting and is still putting on the Middle East peace talks that are now facing a difficult time, but his efforts and his commitment to that are precious. There are all – not only us Italians, but all Europeans supporting this effort very much, and hope and think that this work is an excellent opportunity for the Middle East to finally find a way out of the conflict.

And second, we also discussed Afghanistan and to recommit ourselves, once the election phase is over and there’s a new leadership in Afghanistan, to accompany their democratic transition furthermore.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you everyone.

SECRETARY KERRY: Is that it? Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.

CLASHES AT MASS EVICTION IN ROME AS CRISIS BITES

Protesters clash with police during the occupation of a building by associations that campaign for housing rights on April 16, 2014 in Rome (AFP Photo/Alberto Pizzoli)

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By Ella IDE

Rome (AFP) – Riot police dragged away some 350 squatter families from abandoned offices in Rome amid violent clashes on Wednesday — the latest in a rising tide of forced evictions in Italy fuelled by the economic crisis.

Several people were injured as police used truncheons to break through a large group of protesters outside the building, where squatters had barricaded themselves in and taken to the roof.

An AFP photographer saw between 100 and 150 officers then entering the building — a former state-owned insurance agency — and escorting the residents out, nine days after the occupation began.

The families were loaded into around 10 waiting police vans in the area south of the city centre, which was entirely closed off to traffic for the operation.

“They clubbed us wildly, it was brutal,” Cristiano Armati, a member of the Coordinamento association which had helped occupy the building, told AFP by telephone from hospital.

“It doesn’t end here though. The fight for housing rights will go on,” said Armati, who said he was being treated for a broken elbow and cuts to the head.

Another protester injured in the clashes broke her leg and was seen being taken away in an ambulance.

Rome city council said around 90 properties in the city are currently occupied by squatters. The number of evictions in the capital is on the rise as families struggle to pay rent amid record-high unemployment.

The council carried out 3,346 evictions in the first six months of 2013 — a 10-percent increase from the first six months of 2012, according to the latest data.

A steady increase since 2008 “shows just how grave the impact of the economic crisis has been, dragging ever greater swaths of the population into the emergency housing phenomenon,” a council official told AFP.

The squatters were a mix of Italians and immigrants, many of whom lost their jobs in the economic crisis.

“They broke in, throwing our belongings out of the window, dragging us along the floor and kicking those who resisted,” one squatter, who did not want to be named, told La Repubblica daily.

The government last month launched a new housing plan that promised to double rent subsidies for low earners to 200 million euros ($280 million) for 2014 and 2015, but it also cracked down on squatters’ rights.

Critics say the subsidies are not enough and insist the government should do more to free up empty properties.

An investigation by Italy’s Panorama magazine last month put the number of lodgings currently lying empty in the Italian capital alone at 50,000 units.

Rome’s council said it was cracking down on those abusing the system, seizing council properties from high-income earners, who pay an average of 79 euros ($109) a month for apartments in the city centre — often despite owning yachts or secondary properties.

PRESIDENT OBAMA MEETS WITH PRIME MINISTER RENZI OF ITALY

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OBAMA HOLDS TALKS WITH ITALIAN PRESIDENT

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OBAMA’S VISIT TO ITALY, QUIET BUT CRUCIAL

by Riccardo Alcaro | Brookings

Barack Obama’s meeting with Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi today is a side event in a Rome agenda dominated by the U.S. President’s more politically significant visit to Pope Francis at the Vatican. For Obama, the political expediency to show some common ground with the highly popular Francis, with whom he shares an interest in promoting the cause of fighting global poverty and inequality, is evident. This is not to say, however, that Obama and Renzi will only exchange diplomatic courtesies.

For Renzi, it would be important to have Obama openly endorse his agenda to revive Italy’s economy. A blessing from the U.S. president, who is still very popular in Italy, would help Renzi build domestic support for his planned reforms of the labor market, the tax system, and government administration – all issues on which he faces significant opposition. The U.S. president has an interest in obliging, not least because Renzi aims to mitigate the German-championed austerity course the EU has been bent on for years. The U.S. administration has never favored the German approach as it is convinced that it has curbed Europe’s recovery, indirectly harming the U.S. economy.

Obama, for his part, has his own priorities concerning Italy. He will remind Renzi of the imperative for Western allies to keep a firm line on Russia following the latter’s forced takeover of Crimea. The U.S. wants Italy to be ready to support restrictive measures that go beyond the modest set of sanctions already agreed at the EU level. This is a thorny question for Italy, which has extensive trade and energy relations with Moscow. One issue U.S. officials will look on with concern is whether Italy will remain committed to the development of South Stream, a gas pipeline under the Black Sea which is being developed by Russia’s Gazprom in cooperation with Italian energy company Eni. The planned pipeline has originated much controversy in the past because it bypasses Ukraine and runs counter to the EU-stated goal of reducing Europe’s reliance on Russia’s energy supplies. In light of the recent events in Crimea, it is safe to say that the U.S. expects Italy to put the project on hold – if not to scrap it altogether.

The crisis with Russia could also give Obama the opportunity to call on Italy to avoid cuts to military spending that could further downgrade its defense capabilities. This is a tall order, however, as Renzi’s cabinet is actually debating a 3 billion euro reduction of defense expenditures. U.S. requests that the axe fall more on personnel costs (which absorb 66% of the defense budget), rather than equipment and investments, are likely to fall on deaf ears. Italy’s parliament has just approved a defense reform which does little to address this problem, and is unlikely to re-open the file anytime soon.

Another issue on which the U.S. would like to see more Italian activity is Libya. The country is near total collapse. The political process has stalled (recent elections for a constitutional assembly have recorded a depressingly low turnout). Armed militias fight each other for controlling portions of the territory – one of them even managed to snatch an oil tanker from the government and bring it into international waters, where it was seized by U.S. Special Forces and given back to Tripoli. Illicit trafficking is rampant. An authoritarian turn or, worse, a new civil war, are concrete possibilities. As Italy has huge energy and security interests at stake in Libya, it is only natural to the U.S. that Rome should take on greater responsibilities in the region. Renzi should profit from U.S. backing and make a sustained effort to mobilize international resources to help Libya’s government to accelerate the democratic transition, train its security forces and restart the economy.

A further issue on the U.S.-Italian agenda is Iran. Under the previous government, Italy’s overtures towards the Islamic Republic raised eyebrows in Washington. U.S. officials worried that the flurry of Italian-Iranian exchanges – between cabinet members, lawmakers and businessmen – could lead to a premature erosion of the Iran sanctions coalition. While U.S. concerns were exaggerated, the Renzi government has not shown the same level of activism and may never do so. Renzi has little foreign policy experience but is a shrewd politician. He could be unwilling to further irritate Washington by authorizing further overtures toward Iran because he knows that the crisis in Western-Russian relations has the potential to strain U.S.-Italian relations.

ALL ROADS LEAD OUT OF ROME? SARDINIA PLANS SECESSION REFERENDUM

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PUSH IN SARDINIA FOR ONLINE VOTE ON INDEPENDENCE FROM ITALY

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View of Gennargentu, the highest massif of Sardinia (Image from wikipedia.org)

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by RT

The island of Sardinia plans to hold an online referendum on independence from Italy, following in the footsteps of country’s northeastern Veneto region, where a similar vote revealed high separatist moods.

Over 2 million people in Veneto took part in the internet referendum on March 16-21, with 89 per cent of them voting in favor of cutting ties with Rome.

Despite the plebiscite having no legal power, it inspired the Sardinian Action Party (PSdAz) to organize an independence online vote in Sardinia, Nuova Sardegna website reports.

PSdAz advocates withdrawal from Italy and the cultivation of Sardinian traditions and values.

“We’ll just ask the Sardinians if they want independence,”
said John Hills, the Sardinian Action Party’s national secretary. “Their opinion is important. We believe that this issue has become very relevant today and we want to clarify what exactly is the will of the people.”

A motion to stage an online referendum will be presented before the regional council in Sardinia on Thursday.

Most likely, there’ll be just one question put before the islanders if the vote is given a green light: “Do you want Sardinia to become an independent state?” Hills said.

Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, with a population of over 1.6 million. It is currently an autonomous region of Italy.

A survey performed by the University of Cagliari in 2012 revealed that four out of 10 Sardinians favored independence from Italy.

A total of 6,000 people took part in the survey, with around 10 per cent saying they wanted to withdraw not only from Italy, but from the European Union as well.

Some political forces in Sardinia say they already know what should the island do after gaining independence.

The Maritime Canton movement is pushing for Sardinia to become part of Switzerland, paying no attention to laughs from the skeptics.

“The madness doesn’t lie in putting forward” a suggestion to join a landlocked country 1,000 kilometers away, Andrea Caruso, the movement’s co-founder, told the Guardian. “The madness lies in how things are now.”

The “inefficient and sick” administration, which Sardinia gets as part of Italy, forced the region to start looking for look for “an expert partner, who can show us how to create an effective, efficient and mature system of local government,” a petition on the Maritime Canton’s website said.

“This partner is, we think, Switzerland,” the petition says.

The online petition, which Sardinians and Swiss citizens are urged to sign, has attracted signatures of 2,500 people so far.

The rise of separatist movements across Europe “isn’t a negative process,” Anna Arque from European Partnership for Independence told RT.

“Well, actually, it’s a positive note. As European citizens, we feel the trust in democracy because we actually feel Europe is mature enough to cope with democracy and to cope with the will of different nations,” she said.

According to Arque, the purpose of the independence movements on the continent is “reorganizing internally the European Union; reorganizing ourselves by the principle of democracy to resolve… the conflicts that are still not resolved in the 21st century.”

89% OF VENETIANS VOTE FOR INDEPENDENCE FROM ITALY, WILL WITHHOLD TAXES TO ROME

Zero Hedge

Inspired by Scotland’s hopes for independence and hot on the heels of Crime’a 95% preference for accession to Russia, 89% of the citizens of Venice voted for their own sovereign state in a ‘referendum’ on independence from Italy. As The Daily Mail reports, the proposed ‘Repubblica Veneta’ includes the five million inhabitants of the Veneto region and has been largely driven by the wealthy ‘who are tired of supporting the poor and crime-ridden south’ (Venice pays EUR71bn in taxes and receives only EUR21bn in services and investment). The ballot appointed a committee of ten who immediately declared independence from Italy. Venice may now start withholding taxes from Rome. Wonder why the US, Europe, and Japan have not announced the referendum “illegal” and announced sanctions yet?

Via The Daily Mail,

Venetians have voted overwhelmingly for their own sovereign state in a ‘referendum’ on independence from Italy.

Inspired by Scotland’s separatist ambitions, 89 per cent of the residents of the lagoon city and its surrounding area, opted to break away from Italy in an unofficial ballot.

The proposed ‘Repubblica Veneta’ would include the five million inhabitants of the Veneto region and could later expand to include parts of Lombardy, Trentino and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Wealthy Venetians, under mounting financial pressure in the economic crisis, have rallied in their thousands, after growing tired of supporting Italy’s poor and crime ridden Mezzogiorno south, through high taxation.

So how long will it before Barosso, Van Rompuy, Obama, Abe and th rest declare this referendum “illegal” and seek sanctions against the people of Venice…

Tile image: Iselines / Flickr

VENICE REFERENDUM: CRIMEA ENCOURAGED VOTE TO TAKE PLACE

Hot on the heels of Crimea breaking away from Ukraine, the Italian city of Venice has voted for independence from Rome. An overwhelming 89 percent of Venetians voted for going it alone, in a referendum… and the city could now start withholding taxes from the Italian government. Local professor Paolo Bernardini spoke to my colleague Bill Dod, and broke down the reasoning for the historic move.

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