Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

1596 words

The long arm of Europe

14 September 2012

You can drive for days, but Brussels always catches up with you, discovers James Panichi


Beach, with bagni.
Photo: Paolo Alfieri/ Flickr

Beach, with bagni.
Photo: Paolo Alfieri/ Flickr

YOU can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. It’s the “Hotel California” effect that I’d been warned about – no matter which part of Europe you’re in, Brussels is what gets people talking. Not Brussels the Belgian capital, of course (“Is Brussels in Belgium?”); it’s Brussels the home of all that’s good (and bad) about the European Union. Particularly in this time of crisis, everyone’s asking, “What will Brussels do?”

So it was when I hit the road with my family this European summer for what had incautiously been billed (by me) as the two-week holiday of a lifetime. After fourteen hours on the road (with a stopover in France) we arrived in the small Tuscan coastal town of Forte dei Marmi, where I had spent the best years of my adolescence diving off the pier and working as a ball-boy at a local tennis court.

My Italian relatives were happy to meet the family and old school friends took me out for dinner to catch up on my news. The town itself was just as I remembered it: the glitzy, pricey and slightly tacky playground of northern Italy’s mildly affluent upper middle classes. (The very wealthy go to Sardinia and Milan’s establishment left town in the 1960s, never to return.)

The real change everyone was talking about was the arrival of the Russian mega-rich, who were buying up property and splashing cash around in a way that Forte dei Marmi’s resident petite bourgeoisie was finding offensive. A friend told me the story of a man who had been knocked off his bike by a Russian’s high-powered SUV: the man was fine but the Russian handed him €4000 anyway. The consensus: how vulgar! Yet the recipient of the Russian’s largesse apparently hasn’t complained and a local author joked that cyclists are now milling around expensive cars, hoping they too will come a cropper.

Yet the real story lay elsewhere. All along the coastline black pirate flags were flying — but in place of the Jolly Roger’s crossbones there were beach umbrellas. “What do the flags mean?” I asked a local lifeguard. “We’re sending a message to Brussels,” was the reply. There you have it: you can drive for days, but Brussels will always catch up with you.

To understand what the lifeguard was getting at, you need to know a bit about the Italian coastline. Most beaches are divvied up into neat parcels of land, occupied by what are officially called stabilimenti balneari but are usually referred to as bagni. Each bagno, maybe fifty metres wide, is a small business with a cafeteria, beach boxes and showers. The sand is then covered by rows of umbrellas and (for the wealthier bather) small gazebos.

Going to the beach in Forte dei Marmi (and most of Italy) means signing up to a bagno. You can rent an umbrella for the full “season” (usually the three months of summer), for one month, or even just for a day. An umbrella gives you access to deckchairs, showers and, of course, a cafe where you can have your morning coffee in peace.

It’s not what an Australian would see as a normal beach experience, but in Italy the bagno system makes sense. In a country of sixty million people where everyone goes on holiday in the same month (August), you are packing a lot of humanity onto a small coastline, and Italians aren’t known for keeping public spaces clean. Then there’s the fact that until recently swimming lessons haven’t featured prominently in children’s extracurricular activities, making lifeguards essential (there are no unpatrolled beaches). And, of course, Italians like their creature comforts and wouldn’t be seen dead carrying an esky, so a place to sit and be served lunch is essential.

After the second world war, national and local governments quickly understood the need to organise Italy’s beaches, and in a bid to encourage investment they offered leases at bargain-basement prices. While the amount of money bagno operators pay for the use of public land varies, in most cases it’s either a token amount or a small percentage of the land’s real value.

As a result, the operators who got in early found themselves with a battery of geese laying golden eggs. In the case of my old hometown, people were spending more and more money just to have a few square metres of shade on what had become one of the trendiest beaches in Italy.

Bagno operators in Forte dei Marmi are a type of hereditary nobility. You can pass the licence on to your children – I know someone who is a third-generation bagno manager – and while you might work hard for a few months a year, winter offers a chance to finetune your golf game. The money that operators pull in over summer makes it all worthwhile.

Italian governments know better than to upset powerful lobbies, and bagno operators have money to spend promoting their cause if they sense someone is out to spoil their fun. But Brussels – ah, yes. Those eurocrats just don’t understand the cultural sensitivities. And that’s why they need to be stopped. At least, that was the story in Forte dei Marmi.

THE Bolkestein Directive on services in the internal European market (referred to in Italy simply as la Bolkestein) is an EU law that came into effect in 2006. It was named after Frits Bolkestein, a Dutch politician who was the European commissioner for internal market and services in the early noughties.

On paper, the directive shouldn’t have been too controversial. It was simply reaffirming principles of liberalisation that EU members had already signed up to. But bringing competition to the area of services is never easy and opposition to the proposed legislation gained momentum, culminating in a group of workers from across Europe marching on Brussels in 2005.

The fear back then (plus ça change!) was that greater labour mobility in the services sector would lead to an erosion of national protections and standards. So it became an issue of lost national sovereignty, with unions and left-wing politicians joining the fight. (In Europe, left is the new right.)

Eventually, the European parliament got its hands on the legislation and managed to tone down some of its demands. Yet the values that underpinned the directive — that national boundaries shouldn’t interfere with cross-border investment in services — remained.

Article 9 states that the directive applies “only to requirements which affect the access to, or the exercise of, a service activity.” And this, in short, is why black flags are flying on Italian beaches. The bagno operators are defending the cosy deals that gave them perpetual leases on government land — deals that don’t look like a particularly level playing field when they’re viewed from outside.

The battlelines are now drawn, with “Brussels” on one side and a politically powerful lobby of Italian businesses on the other. In a different era, the Italian government would have found a way around the directive: la Bolkestein does indeed have a clause exempting cases where there are “overriding reasons relating to the public interest.” One suggestion I heard in Forte dei Marmi was that bagni could be reclassified as “restaurants with unique regional identities.” (I must have had lunch at the wrong one.)

But with money scarce and the technocratic government of Mario Monti committed (at least in theory) to reform, bagno operators have a real fight on their hands. Unless something changes, by 2016 the licences to operate a bagno will be auctioned and many family operators will have to find a job that lasts the whole year.

Traditionally, when an Italian government has had to choose between consumers and corporations, it has preferred the second. Anyone who has spent time on an Italian beach knows that more often than not bagni operate as a cartel – they all overcharge on the assumption that tourists have unlimited money to spend (and the Russians have proved them right). But why has no Italian government chosen to liberalise the beaches until now?

This is why having a Brussels bogeyman to blame for market liberalisation has served Rome well. Ministers can throw up their hands and blame Europe; the Italian lobbies then either swallow the pill in the name of European unity or help to find a clever way around it. Either way, Rome can take on the role of bystander and avoid the wrath of the corporations. It isn’t an approach designed to foster European unity and leaves voters with the often correct impression that Rome is having liberalisation foisted on it.

I found myself pondering these ideas as we made our way north, past the spectacular mountains of Valle d’Aosta and through the Mont Blanc tunnel. The following day we drove non-stop through France, Luxembourg and Belgium, speeding past the old border customs buildings which, in a pre–European Union world, would have been guarded by burly policemen carrying guns. By the time we entered the city limits of Brussels I did indeed feel that I had never really left. •

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