The most important man in Europe you’ve never heard of

Raffaele Cantone, a fit and forceful man of 51, was appointed at the end of last year as head of the National Anti-Corruption Authority in Italy. If he fails in this role, it will be a terrifying moment for Italy. If he succeeds, he could transform the continent.

He is the most important man in Europe you have never heard of.

No surprise: Many see Italy as very corrupt. Indeed, according to Transparency International, it’s by far the most corrupt state in Western Europe; and in all of Europe, only Serbia and Montenegro — ex-communist states — have lower scores.

As Cantone has noted, this is a disaster for Italy. Its citizens are now accustomed to work within an often-corrupt environment. And in corrupt environments, to be corrupt oneself is the only way to get things done. The message, to which otherwise decent people subscribe, is “everybody does it so why shouldn’t I? Otherwise, I’ll get screwed!” In the countries at the top of TI’s list, Cantone said, “people already have a habit of honesty”.

Foreign direct investment in Italy is very low, at 1.4 per cent of GDP, less than half of the EU average. Italy has large strengths in the three “Fs” — food, fashion and Fiat (the car company has grown to be a successful multinational). But it needs those fourth and fifth Fs: foreign firms, especially in high tech and in services. But broad corruption — coupled with a rigid labor market, unpredictable politics, snail-like courts and an interfering bureaucracy — scare off international investors.

There’s a larger problem: The euro crisis has pitted northern Europe against the south. The narrative is framed as the honest and hardworking Germans, Scandinavians and Dutch against the lazy, dishonest “Club Med” states — Spain, Greece, and above all Italy. According to stereotype, these are the places the paleskins of the north go for their beach and villa holidays; where the food and wine are fine, the olive-skinned locals friendly, the days and nights balmy. But with the sentimental fondness often goes a set of assumptions: enjoy the lovely scenery, but make sure to double check your bill and don’t invest.

Italians, as you can imagine, hate this. I, married into a Tuscan family of stern honesty, resent it with them. But to pretend the country’s politicians, bureaucrats and business people have not added fuel to the fire is to prolong the problem.

These attitudes surface in the private conversations of the northern elites, in the distrust for Club Med commitments to reform and in the decisions taken in the boardrooms of Northern Europe and North America. No point in saying “unfair.” The point is to change them.

Cantone, the head of the Anti-Corruption Authority, has mountains to climb, and a staff of only 300 to help him up. His authority has begun rooting out corrupt deals associated with the Expo in Milan this year. Meanwhile, investigations into the vast engineering project of constructing an anti-flood barrier in Venice forced the city’s mayor to resign last summer. And last December, the financial police in Rome broke open a rats’ nest of corrupt public finances and organized crime penetration in the capital’s council.

Cantonehas to be optimistic: This trilogy of scandals happened last year before his watch, prompting his appointment. The mafia, especially in Sicily, has been much reduced. The laws are changing.

Cantone said the one major reason for the sharp worsening of the corruption ratings has been the policies of the years since 2000, where little or nothing was done to tame corruption. Meanwhile some laws — like those on flexible accounting standards — made the matter worse. These were the years when Silvio Berlusconi was the dominant force, prime minister for most of the decade.

Politics have changed too. Matteo Renzo is often criticized, but not for corruption, either now or when he was mayor of Florence. His Democratic Party, recalibrated by him from leftist to centrist, still commands the political space. He’s a deft performer, as aging Berlusconi fades into the background.

Cantone will face the usual political, bureaucratic and public obstructions of any reformer in Italy. But he has been widely praised as a savior and is strongly, even desperately, backed by Renzi.

If he fails, it sets Italy back a decade and renders the European Union still more fragile. It drives even deeper north Europe’s view of the south, makes their recovery less likely, waters the soil for more corruption.

He must succeed.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

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