Arianna Capuani is responsible for foreign relations in the United Kingdom for the Italian localist think tank Fondazione per la Sussidiarietà.
I think most people in Britain have a pretty straightforward, and often accurate, view of Italy. They love going there for holidays in the sun, surrounded by the best art ever created in the Western World, great taste in clothing, and real attention to detail. In return, they have to put up with the terrible quality of public services. It is common knowledge that Italian red tape is still among the worst in Western Europe, and several public services, namely buses without a timetable, are appalling for many, including Italian nationals.
But not all Italy’s regions fit that description. Lombardy is an exception in several ways. While in recent years the Italian regions earned more and more independence, only Lombardy seems to have used that autonomy to apply subsidiarity efficiently.
Please don’t frown at that word, dear British reader. Subsidiarity isn’t just a promise of devolution to Member States to which the EU pays lip service, but actually quite an important concept that’s deeply rooted in Catholic social teaching. The term, first introduced indirectly by Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas and Althusius, was formulated in the 19th Century and further developed in the social encyclicals, from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum on, reaching its most explicit formulation in Pius XI’s Quadrigesimo Anno (1931).
It indicates that matters should be handled by the least centralised authority possible. Under that doctrine states will have a ‘subsidiary’ function, that is to say, will only intervene in case intermediate bodies cannot solve a specific problem for any reason. It is a lot like what many British commentators call localism, which can appeal to even the most committed eurosceptics.
The question is, if subsidiarity is an idea that can flourish in a Catholic environment, how come Lombardy has developed that model better than anyone else in a nation that is Catholic from coast to coast?
There are a number of reasons. Milan hosts a series of charitable organisations, mainly hospitals, such as Ca’ Granda, which have become an important part of how the city delivers public services. During the Counterreformation the archbishop Saint Charles Borromeo attached a particular importance to evangelical charity, of the kind delivered by several religious orders. However, the 18th Century saw Mary Therese and Joseph II suppress many Catholic brotherhoods, starting with the Jesuitic ones. The Napoleonic invasion was even harsher.
Despite that, the spirit of voluntary social action adapted and survived the cultural changes sweeping across Europe at the beginning of the 19th Century. In the 20th Century, as Milan became a hub for industrialisation and started absorbing large numbers of immigrants, mostly from Southern Italy, religious groups engaged in evangelisation and supported the poor. They were particularly active in the years when Giovanni Battista Montini was archbishop (later to become Pope Paul VI).
In more recent years, Lombardy has taken advantage of the increasing devolution to Italian regions. Combined with efficiency (largely attributable to a long period under Austrian rule) it produced innovations that no other region has even tried to develop. Regional laws issued in the last fifteen years demonstrate a serious commitment to social services. For example, since Regional Law 31 in 1997, Lombardy has introduced freedom of choice for patients. They can now opt for the clinical context/setting in which they will be treated, public or private.
A more recent law, Regional Law 3/2008, art.3, stated that all welfare providers are equally entitled to become part of the state system as ASL (Aziende sanitarie locali): municipalities and other local authorities; individuals, families and informal groups; third sector organisations, trade unions, private healthcare providers and religious institutions. This is impressive when you consider that after the war Italy strongly centralised its services, like other countries in Western Europe, and as a result public services have since been identified with the central state.
But probably the biggest advantage Lombardy has over other Italian regions is strong results in education and vocational training. In the last decade, various innovations have produced the Dote Instrument (2007), which is a combination of regional, municipal and state funds that people can spend on their own education or training, in both state and private sectors. Nowadays, the subcategory Dote Scuola helps students with a low family income if they opt for a scuola paritaria (private school authorised to carry out official exams) and also provides a loan for gifted students reporting high marks at the end of the school year.
Scientific appraisal of the effects of the Dote instrument has not been published yet, but many people think that the outstanding performance of Lombard students in OECD PISA tests (522 points in reading, 516 points in maths and 526 in sciences, against the average 493, 496 and 501 respectively) is down to the education reforms that allow them to enjoy real freedom over the kind of education they want.
Other types of Dote are important too. Launched with Regional Law 22, 2006, Dote Formazione aims to foster employability throughout peoples’ careers by providing basic to managerial training. In 2009, Dote Formazione had a budget of 25 million Euros in 2009, and vouchers were given to 5,000 beneficiaries for a total of 13,798 courses. Another Dote is the Dote Lavoro, aimed at increasing workforce skills and supporting labour market integration. The region is aiming to move Dote Formazione and Dote Lavoro to a purely “personal budget” model, a concept only just starting to be developed in Britain to provide social care.
A recent study published by Fondazione per la Sussidiarietà and CNR-Ceris, “Sussidiarietà…e istruzione e formazione professionale” showed how subsidiarity is making further progress and getting good results in the provision of professional training. Thanks to its network of vocational training institutes, many of which are Catholic institutions that have been around since the mid 19th Century, Lombardy has the lowest drop-out rate for vocational training in Italy. Those strong results are the result of their flexibility and dedication to the people where they work, paying personal attention to each person’s needs and abilities.
That is what subsidiarity is all about: caring for the person, fostering the development of their unique abilities. For all the jokes about Italian politics, there are lessons for Britain in Lombardy’s success.