HOW TO REOPEN ITALY AFTER THE CORONA VIRUS. Paola Severino is Vice President of Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, with a mandate for internationalization, having formerly served as Rector from 2016 to 2018. She is Professor of Criminal Law and President of the Scientific Council of the Luiss School of Law. Since 2018, she is Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on Combating Corruption. From November 2011 to April 2013 she served as Italy’s Minister of Justice in the Cabinet led by Mario Monti. She was the first woman appointed Minister of Justice in Italy. She is a criminal law lawyer on the Roll of solicitors of Rome since 1975.

Paola Severino, In Italy there is a lot of talk about how to reopen the country after the coronavirus. Where would you start?  

I would start with a clear-cut plan that takes the economy as well as the health of citizens into account.

How would that work?

I am not an economist, but the Italian manufacturing industry, which is known throughout the world, can’t stay closed forever because it may never reopen. Our competitors are rushing to fill the void we’ve left. Italy has always led the way in certain industries like fashion, design, and mechanics, and, more generally speaking, the industrial sector. Those areas need to reopen as quickly as possible. They need to try to make the most of this terrible experience to further focus on aspects of social sustainability.

As to protecting the health of our people, I think the government needs to come up with a series of measures – distancing, the use of protections, new ways common spaces can be laid out, and, most of all, monitoring mobility. We have learnt that public transport was a major source of infection. So it would be a good idea to have employees work staggered shifts and, when possible, for the employer to provide transport, to rotate personnel more frequently so that there would be less crowding as people travel between work and home.

Finally, I think it is important to start thinking now about a phase 3, which is the time to reboot  the country, reimagining all of the institutional aspects that have proven to be truly inefficient during this time of crisis. For example, instead of all of the bureaucracy that has threatened to overwhelm the best resources in our country, we need to find a balance between necessary controls and efficiency, efficiency and the time needed to enact the measures this situation requires. What’s more, during this period, there has been tension between the government and individual regions, and this has threatened to slow down (instead of speeding up) rescue measures. So it will be necessary to find areas of common ground as well as to discuss the differences between the central government and the regions. This is an important opportunity that we should make the most of, if we want to improve governance when it comes to the economy and the public administration.

“This is an important opportunity that we should make the most of.”

Paola Severino

Paola Severino, what about small and mid-sized businesses, and shop owners, which truly represent the creativity and hard-working nature of Italians?

First and foremost, I think they are going to need access to cash. They are having a difficult time after having accumulated debt without being able to generate income. Obviously, we need to avoid making mistakes like financing businesses that had accumulated debt in the past and want to use this as an opportunity to get out of the red. We need to offer a lifeline to healthy companies that are going to invest in relaunching their businesses. If we wait too long to take action, then organized crime  – which always has plenty of money from its illegal activities – is going to move in and offer loans with exploitative rates or even buy up these businesses on the cheap. We can’t and don’t want to allow such vital industry to get bogged down under the weight of bureaucracy or get off track due to organized crime. To avoid this, we need a process that includes regulating loans guaranteed by the government, but with a less onerous process for obtaining credit while also making sure the money is used properly. We can achieve the first objective by asking companies to report their assets and agreeing to use the money for manufacturing purposes. The second objective can be achieved by prosecuting anyone who uses government-backed loans improperly and charging them with misuse of public funds. When it comes to money laundering, Italy has carried out a long, bloody battle against organized crime that has given us some of the broadest, most complete laws to prevent the use of dirty money and to seek out anyone laundering money or otherwise tampering with the economy. We have sanctions, which are stricter than anywhere else in Europe, for this especially when it comes to the use of slush funds to finance manufacturing.

The Italian government is under pressure, caught between the opinions of expert scientists and the impatience of business owners. What would you do?  

From personal experience, I know how difficult it is to be in the government. In my very limited role as an “expert,” I would try, as I said before, to balance the needs of relaunching the economy with those of protecting people’s health. Most of all, I would really work on phase 2, meaning getting the economy running again, and phase 3, rebooting the entire country. I would say that the concept of “integrated programming” sums up what we’ve discussed thus far. Also, and especially  because of the emergency, it would be a big mistake to try to improvise or give in to the temptation to focus on one interest over another – health, freedom, and work are all protected by the constitution.

People are complaining about how slow things are moving in the public administration.  There is fear about potential infractions and thus the response of the judiciary. Is this the case?

Yes, absolutely. Well before the coronavirus crisis, it was obvious to everyone that the public administration was slow in making rulings. This is due in part to an inordinate amount of hoops to jump through to meet compliance requirements, and also, in part, due to the fear that more complicated and innovative rulings could require the judiciary to get involved.

What is the solution?

On one hand, we need to fix a procedural problem while, on the other hand, we need to fix a problem of how laws are interpreted.

And how can this be done?

From a procedural point of view, I’ve always thought that the German model was a good example, with streamlined procedures, a simplified authorization phase but very rigorous in terms of how sanctions are applied if one strays from the authorized model. In terms of enforcement, this emergency has showed us that we have a great number of formal regulations that hinder the efficiency and the transparency of public bodies themselves. In turn, they are hesitant to make rulings because they worry about alarming formal judicial interpretations as pertains to criminal law. With this in mind, many hope for a greater reform to abuse-of-power laws.

“Sacrifice and merit provide the most stable, most direct path to achieving and maintaining success.”

Paola Severino, Italy was rebuilt after the war, but at that time there was much less bureaucracy, wasn’t there?

We can look to our constitution as an example of something that gets right to the heart of the matter. A few enlightened men and women put aside their political differences after the war to agree upon a series of essential rules, choosing the fundamental values of our republic and summing them up in just a few regulations.

In a recent newspaper article, you shared your worries about a potential increase in various types of crimes exactly because of how slow the system reacts. Can you talk more about that?   

Criminality is much faster than the public system, also because it has access to so much money, proceeds from illegal activities. Therefore, I think the solution is what Judge Falcone always suggested: to follow the money. I should point out that this is not just an Italian problem, because the money trail goes well beyond national borders, financing much larger phenomena like terrorism. If we think of just how many immigrants there are in need of financial assistance, we can imagine them as easy prey for criminal organizations ready to give them money in exchange for their allegiance.

What about hackers who attack financial and other institutions ? What can be done about it?

To combat hacking, everyone needs to be as aware and as cooperative as possible. For regular citizens, especially in this period when we are all using the Internet, I recommend never using sites that you don’t know, that aren’t certified and are perhaps based in countries that are not easy to monitor. If we aren’t careful, hackers can access enormous amounts of data that is then sold on markets hungry for our personal information. In terms of the banks and the finance world, I recommend working with the proper authorities, first and foremost the Polizia Postale, to report any attacks. However, many companies need to overcome any understandable hesitation due to the fear of ruining their reputations once people find out that their IT systems were vulnerable to attack. It is advantageous to report these things quickly because it allows us to constantly stay up-to-date on the ways hackers – whose imaginations and innovation knows no bounds – carry out their attacks.

Do we need more laws?

I don’t think so. I would say that the European legislature as well as the Italian legislature has an adequate system of laws. The larger problem is still greater international collaboration. I’m talking about those countries that host these platforms where illicit activities are protected, and can’t be touched by letters rogatory from other countries.

Before we spoke about slow bureaucracy. As a criminal defence lawyer, how would you judge the Italian magistracy? It doesn’t always operate in the same way depending on the courts…

There is a national school that aims to make the work of our magistrates consistent across the board. However, we can’t judge all courts in the same way. Some are small and don’t prosecute certain types of crime very often. For example, in Italy, there is a corporate court, but it only has jurisdiction over civil matters. Extending its jurisdiction to cover criminal matters would require judges to be more specialized and would lead to more uniform decisions, with sentences that are more predictable and a faster process all round. These are all aspects that outside investors see as positives when they decide to put their money into a country, and our citizens would benefit as well.

Should Italy serve as a model or is it up to the standards of other European countries? How do you think Italy is handling this emergency phase?

I think that, in this emergency situation, Italians have shown a great deal of courage, discipline, and generosity, exactly like in other difficult moments for the country. Many other countries have praised us and have taken inspiration from our model. Now, we need to draw on these qualities as we enter into what we hope will be as close to possible as a return to normality. Our ancestors and our families have taught us that sacrifice and merit provide the most stable, most direct path to achieving and maintaining success. We need to teach our children and our grandchildren to believe in the same values, in the hopes that the death of so many of our elderly caused by this epidemic doesn’t deprive of us of the precious contribution of the generation, based precisely on sacrifice and merit, that rebuilt Italy after the war. It seems to me that this emergency has allowed us to go beyond the daily, often petty battles and controversies, to focus on the real issues in fighting this epidemic  ­­– the dramatic deaths of people who are far from loved ones, the inconvenience of having certain freedoms taken away, the awareness of how difficult this is for the poor who are often isolated in very difficult living conditions, the drama of merchants – small and large – who have put everything into growing their businesses, which are now at risk.

“I am buoyed by a sense of strength that comes from others.”

Paola Severino, many people say that the world will never be the same. Do you think this is true?

After any kind of big shock, people tend to try to focus on a world that takes the needs of people and families into account, more focused on environmental and social responsibility, more about solidarity. But I think human beings will be able to make the most of these opportunities and won’t soon forget what happened and how fragile the foundation of our economic and social security is.

Will we be able to defend ourselves from these unforeseen events in the future?

The entire world was unprepared for the coronavirus, especially those countries that, unlike Italy, initially underestimated the extent of its destructive power. In this sense, the crisis has certainly taught us that it doesn’t make sense to put our heads in the sand and hide from the problem, which many countries around the world did. There’s a wonderful short story by Edgar Allan Poe about a group of aristocrats who hid up in a castle during the plague because they were convinced the illness couldn’t reach them there. During one of the many parties and balls, where they celebrated their perceived immortality, a dark figure appeared wearing a mask. It was the Red Death, which had made its way into the castle and quickly killed everyone there. This is symbolic of how some countries have refused to take proper measures to prevent the spread of the epidemic, and now they are being hit by the virus. They now have to try to follow what other countries, such as Italy, have been doing all along.

How are  you spending your time during these difficult days?

Working at my desk in my home office, working remotely, of course, and staying home.  In the first few days, I felt sort of uncomfortable spending hours and hours talking to a screen, but then I realized that this technology allowed for creating a connection with others, precisely because of the emergency situation that we are in, and that it was stronger and more intense than I’d imagined. Take my students, for example – I found out that they sometimes share my lessons with their parents.  Take the middle schools I am working with on a project that puts young people – living in high-crime areas or in juvenile-detention centres ­– in contact with our university students who teach them how lawfulness and merit can lead to success. It is from these schools that I first learned about the seriousness of the poverty issue, how some families are truly isolated, and how there is a need to act immediately to help them survive. I also think this is a bit of a magic time because I finally have time to play with my grandchildren, to talk to my daughter and her husband about the problems they will face in this new era, to have conversations with my husband about how lucky we are to all be together at home in this period that is fraught with difficult moments and worries about the future. For my young colleagues at the firm, I think our daily online meetings are a source of comfort at a time when those of us who are self-employed are worried about the uncertainty of the future, and we need to lean on each other for strength. I think a lot about those young people who are graduating now, obviously online, without the satisfaction of a handshake when they receive their diplomas. They have sent me such touching messages about their faith in the future and hopes for a graduation ceremony at a later date where we can hug one another.

At the end of these days, where I also have time to read and to focus on writing articles and scientific papers, I am buoyed by a sense of strength that comes from others. You can feel that people really want to overcome. Before, in better times, there wasn’t this type of energy; back then we had no idea what was coming and how our lives and world would change.