My work in higher education brought me to Estonia, one of the three Baltic countries that are far away from my home country of Italy. Moreover, I am a very small piece of a much bigger mosaic. The brain drain that Italy is facing today is the direct consequence of the country’s overall decline.
From this perspective, Estonia and Italy could not look more different. The former has become synonymous with innovation, dynamism, and progressive forward thinking, while the country of my birth is often depicted as the sick man of Europe – fossilised, backward, frightened, and in a perennial state of crisis. Too many decades of unaccountable and distant elites, as well as endemic corruption, have ignited resentment and frustration among ordinary Italian citizens.
When called to cast their vote, many of them have found solace in demagogues appealing to ideas and slogans that we thought were long ago relegated to the dustbin of history. Following the 2017 elections, Italy has emerged as Europe’s political laboratory of far-right extremism, Euroscepticism, and nationalism.
A more empirical look at the gap between Tallinn and Rome reflects the same distance. Estonia ranks 11th, Italy is 43rd, in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, 18th vs. 52nd in the 2018 Corruption Perception Index, 18th vs. 58th in the 2019 Ease of Doing Business, 3rd vs. 34th in the 2015 PISA Science Quality of Education Ranking, and 6th vs. 25th in the 2018 Freedom on the Net Index.
The uncomfortable truth is that Italy has not always been synonymous with decline. There was a time – in the not-so-distant past – when the country was a global power house of ideas, progress, and development.
Following the tragedy of the World War II, Italy’s people wanted to do away with what they saw as being directly responsible for their misery. That meant leaving being authoritarian demagogues, a parasitic monarchy, an unaccountable state, agrarian feudalism, and a pre-modern economy. Following the proclamation of the new republic of Italy, a mature liberal-minded political class – tempered by fascist political persecution and by the organised resistance against dictatorship – translated that hope into concrete actions.
The late 1950s and 1960s are still remembered in Italy – with an increasing sense of melancholy, mind you – as the years of an economic boom and of ‘the Italian miracle’, which was possible as a result of the country’s political representatives, and the citizens with which they spoke on behalf for, had faith in each other and shared a vision of the future. That pursuit of a better future of peace and economic prosperity united Italians more than any partisanship or class could divide them. No one was surprised when, in 1975, Italy was one of the founding members of the Group of Seven, or G7, as the world’s 5th largest economy.
Italy’s ‘miracle’ could have only happened in a united and pacified Europe to which the country enthusiastically contributed as a founding member of the European Communities with its ideas, resources, and political impetus. The commitment to a united Europe was not limited to the country’s elites, but was also shared by Italian society who, for decades, had one of the highest percentages of support for European integration and regularly had one of the highest turnouts in the European elections.
But if we turn our eyes to the Belpaese today, it seems that the average Italian has forgotten the same spirit of hope and desire for change that our parents and grandparents had. Even more dangerously, they have forgotten what they were escaping from.
Many argue that for Estonia, World War II actually only ended in 1991 when the country regained its stolen independence after being impoverished and ruined by more than 50 years of brutal Soviet occupation. As Estonia reappeared on the maps of a new Europe, the country was faced with the herculean challenge of re-building itself from anew. That titanic effort united Estonians and their visionary leaders in the same way that it united Italians in the reconstruction of their country in the 1950s.
Estonians, and their sons and daughters, who fled the country out of fear from the terror of the Red Army in 1944, returned to their homeland to help build a better future for their grandsons and granddaughters. The spirit of that time – a mix of hope and struggle, of economic poverty and moral richness – is epitomised by the famous words of Lennart Meri, the first president of the newly free Estonia, “the situation may be s**t, but it’s our fertiliser for the future”.
The personal saga of Meri, who faced persecution and exile during the long dictatorship Soviet Communism, exemplifies both the experience and challenge of Estonia’s young and freedom-minded political class. Thanks to their determination – backed by the strength of a whole nation that was united in the peaceful Singing Revolution – the movement that began in the late 1980s during Mikhail Gorbachev’s era of glasnost and perestroika that saw tiny Estonia play as crucial a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union that Poland played in the collapse of the Kremlin-led Eastern Bloc.
The same synergy of political representatives and represented citizens allowed Estonia to overcome the struggles of the 1990s and to start the new millennium as the poster-child of a successful democratic and economic transition. Estonia has now built an effective e-state and gained a reputation as one of Europe’s most digitalised country. Estonians can profit from one of the best educational systems in the world and have the highest income, per-capita, in Central and Eastern Europe. Its capital, Tallinn, is home to countless start-ups and innovative businesses, including three so-called hi-tech unicorns – TransferWise, Bolt, and Skype.
In the last 28 years since it regained its independence and overcame the burden of transforming itself from an occupied nation that was subjected to a brutal command economy, it has become a successful democratic state. From Ukraine to Hong Kong, Estonia has become a source of inspiration for nations in transition –– those that are coping with a difficult present while still hoping for a better future.
Estonians know well what they were escaping from – an oppressive and intrusive state, ubiquitous bureaucracy, a cripplingly centralised economy, and international isolation – and shaped their restored country in exactly the opposite way: digital, light, uncomplicated, business-friendly, and open to the world.
The new Estonia’s openness translated externally into the country’s full return to the European family as a committed member of the Western community and determined to promote the values of international cooperation and multilateralism by advancing European and transatlantic integration.
Since 2004, when the country joined both the EU and NATO, Estonia has built a reputation in Brussels of being a reliable, trusted, and deeply committed member. This has given Estonia the chance to exert an influence over EU policy that is much bigger than its physical size. At the same time, the return to Europe has multiplied Estonia’s success and amplified its global voice.
Being part of a borderless Europe has made Estonians more free, while access to the single market and to Brussels’ financial support has boosted Estonian businesses and supported the country’s infrastructure.
In recent years, following what looks like a global trend, the grey clouds of demagogy and of the politics of fear have also appeared over Estonia’s sky. Looking back, Italy’s downward trend of economic and moral decline represents a sound warning of the danger of forgetting.