16 February, 2013


Election time in Italy is usually scandal time, and we are not spoiled on this occasion for stuff coming out of the woodwork. After the scandal at Monte dei Paschi di Siena, a bank controlled by the left, we have Finmeccanica. The CEO, Giuseppe Orsi, has been arrested on suspicion of paying bribes to land an Indian helicopter contract. Mr Orsi seems to have no particular political involvement but he smells vaguely of the centre-right.
A journalist asked Italy's President Giorgio Napoletano whether he thought Italy was returning to the Tangentopoli (bribesville) days of the '80s and 90s. 'All this worries me but I know nothing' said the wily old communist.

I think it likely that the journalist, il Presidente, and many other people in the press and the government may not have thought through about bribery.

To receive a bribe is one thing. It means that you have been given a position of trust and that you have breached that trust. Most cases refer to functionaries employed by governments who are able to agree business contracts. It is highly common: in a South-East Asian country I heard that only 65% of contract costs go to the contract itself. More than a third is paid out in bribes. In a South American country a procurement official would write the sum of money he wanted on the bottom of his shoe and then put his feet on the desk. Receiving a bribe means that you have stolen money from your compatriots: they have to pay more for their helicopters, roads or whatever in order to enrich you. It is, purely and simply, theft.

Paying bribes is another matter. The most that can be said is that you have charged a foreign country more than you might otherwise have done for your goods or services. That country has willingly paid it. As regards your own compatriots you have helped them: there will be domestic orders and jobs as a result of getting the contract. As Berlusconi said, 'they should not be so moralistic.....companies budget for bribes because that is how business is done in third world countries'.

In my view, inside Italy, Tangentopoli has not gone away: the political caste conspires to enrich itself in ever more imaginative ways. Look at how the sacked head of Monte dei Paschi became head of the Bankers Association.

But Mr Orsi was just doing his job. If the Indian government suddenly has a problem about bribery - and it would be utterly hypocritical if it did - it should look to itself. 

And Italy has far more important things to worry about than this.

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