Over the centuries, Italy’s image has fluctuated in northern Europe. Italians have been associated with dancing masters, fencing tutors, glass makers, opera divas and tenors – and the provenance of the pizza and ice cream. In Albania, despite Italy’s wartime invasion of that country, the fondest memory retained was that of Italian ice cream, which prevailed even through the most austere period of Enver Hoxha’s Communist rule.
And then there is the darker side of the Italian stereotype: the Mafia boss; the Mussolini followers of fascism.
But over the past few months, surely, esteem for Italy’s heroic and altruistic rescue of hundreds of thousands of refugees sailing, as best they can, across the Mediterranean, has surely grown all over Europe.
Over and over again, despite the pressures and political problems involved, Italy has effected humanitarian rescues of men, women and children who have fled North Africa for Italy’s shores. In a period of 12 months, Italians have rescued 100,000 people at sea in the Med. Granted, many of the migrants want to move to Germany, France, Sweden and Britain, but still, the Italians have behaved with great decency.
The latest tragedies, in which so many pitiful victims have lost their lives – with appalling suffering – when their unseaworthy vessels have capsized, only highlight further how much Italy has been involved in the rescue efforts.
The Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, is surely right when he says the European Union simply has to help out. But easier said than done. What exactly can the EU do to stop the trafficking, and help the desperate people who will take any risks to escape from the dreadful conditions of their homelands in North Africa, Egypt and elsewhere?
One lesson is clear: toppling dictators and advocating an “Arab spring” of democracy will not bring about peaceful, stable and tolerant societies overnight – or perhaps for centuries.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (24/4/15).
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