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The industrial question and the case of Ilva: government confusion and the reaction of thousands of factories opened to the public

“Italy’s blighted steel town creates crisis for government,” read The Financial Times on 22 November, in the middle of the Ilva debacle, a heady brew of industrial crisis, political confusion, environmental fears and legal initiatives. Indeed, Europe’s largest steel plant was already poisoning the political landscape. The most widely read international economic daily summarised the situation quite concisely: faced with a severe problem, concerning tens of thousands of jobs and production essential to the efficiency and productivity of Italy, a country whose industrial strength lies precisely in its mechanical industry, the government and political forces were at a loss what to do, bungling between jobs and the environment, changing the rules in the middle of the race, bickering for the sake of propaganda. All this had serious consequences on growth, international investment and the well-being of the whole country.

Ilva in Taranto is just the latest, most clamorous and devastating of the severe crises hitting our industrial sector. It comes at an especially delicate time, when Italy’s growth lags behind that of all other EU countries and is suffering the effects of the USA-China trade war (with its heavy repercussions on Europe). This is coupled with problems throughout the automotive sector, in a strenuous transition towards new, more sustainable conditions for mobility.

Desks at the Ministry of Economic Development are heaped with some 170 cases of companies in crisis, from Alitalia to Whirlpool and many others, with less media impact but just as dramatic for the future of workers, their families and local areas. And not one of them has found a solution. Furthermore, it was Luigi Di Maio, holding this portfolio during the government with the League, who gutted the ministry of its professional skills and expertise, at the same time as managing to destabilise the state’s finances with his basic income hand-outs.

The economic climate is plagued by difficulties. Industrial production this year has registered a 2% drop, with worrisome signs from even the strongest industrial zones, like Brescia, Bergamo, Milan and Piedmont. And not even in the new government contexts can clear indications be found for a way out of the situation. Ilva and Alitalia are the most noticeable cases of absolute confusion in ideas. They confirm the risks posed by allowing an anti-industry and anti-technology culture to flourish, most notably within the Five Star Movement, where there is a widespread temptation to respond to the crises with the worst possible solution: state intervention, ‘salvation’ at the expense of the nation’s wallets.

‘It scares me to see a strong anti-industrial sentiment returning to Italy. But if all other countries are asking our entrepreneurs to invest in their industries, how can it be that our own government fails to understand our value and support us?’ argued Carlo Bonomi, president of Assolombarda, during a debate organised by Il Foglio last weekend in Florence. ‘Industry is slowing down, but politicians are looking elsewhere,’ from real crises to failed reforms, noted Valerio Castronovo, a renowned historian of economics, in IlSole24Ore. ‘In the grip of industrial decline,’ was the view of experienced economist Mario Deaglio, in La Stampa. In spite of everything, we are still Europe’s number two manufacturing power, after Germany. But there is a growing risk that France will overtake us. The negative impact would be felt at several economic levels, starting from the ability to attract international investments and the possibility to convince the best of our young people to stay, when they are tempted to seek better work and living conditions elsewhere.

Are we to be condemned to decline too, because of political incompetence and indecisiveness, along with forms of populism born of ‘unfortunate degrowth’? Let’s hope not. And yet we are moving in this direction. There is a strong reaction, precisely from the broad world of companies, in their relation with society, the industrial regions and schools. A clear position is taking shape in the various industrial and employment sectors to re-establish the conditions for competitiveness, productivity and development.

Proof can also found in the growing success of some initiatives that again this year, precisely in November, are meeting with heightened interest and participation. These include the ‘Settimana della cultura d’impresa’ (‘corporate culture week’) organised by Museimpresa and Confindustria, ‘Pmi day’ (‘SME day’) promoted by Confindustria’s small industry section (1,300 factories opened to 46,000 young Italian people), and the ‘OpenFactory’ events by ItalyPost. Corriere della Sera’s ‘L’Economia’ saw 50 sites opened to the public on Sunday 24 November, visited by over 20,000 people from Emilia to Lombardy, from the Veneto (home to the internationally renowned Carraro in Campodarsego, which manufactures high-tech components for tractors, an example of Made in Italy excellence) to Friuli, along with other regions of central Italy. The regional government of Piedmont also organised ‘Fabbriche aperte’ (‘open factories’) in early November, where over 8,000 people visited 120 companies (particularly successful were those in the agri-food sector). The municipal council of Milan is also hosting ‘Manifatture Aperte’ (‘open manufacturers’) in the last weekend of November to highlight ‘the return of manufacturing to the city.’ A melting pot of popular attention for our firms and their role as key actors in development. They represent industrial tradition, digital economy innovation, and expertise from craftsmen and machines. All are linked by one basic idea: to relaunch the school-work connection, convince our youth, show them concrete examples of the ‘beautiful factory’, one that is efficient, sustainable, safe, inclusive and an ideal place for work, professional dignity, knowledge and a future.

A dynamic notion of Italy is alive in the country’s industrial areas, in territories accustomed to producing, exporting and building development. It is an idea to defend and protect from the misgovernment of the crises, something to help thrive. Indeed, this Italy does not deserve decline. Those who govern the country and who, in parliament, make the laws (often ill conceived, to the detriment of industry, and badly written) should seriously bear this in mind.