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ERC Securing Europe, Fighting its enemies, 1815-1914


Inflation of Emergencies: Italy in continuous “crisi”

Spring in Italy generally makes Western Europeans think of strolling through streets while enjoying ice cream and the early warmth of the sun. For the city servants of Rome, spring connotes an annual ritual that requires full commitment to secure the citizens’ daily routine: Emergenza Guano – “bird excrement emergency”, as a national news agency termed it. This may sound like an April fool, but it leaves an insipid aftertaste. When browsing Italy’s headlines of the recent past, one will notice that the term “emergency” dominates. Examples range from waste, refugees, traffic and parking lots, to debit, rats and snow. It appears that Italy has either been extraordinarily unlucky or extremely susceptible to emergency rhetoric. It is not just interesting to wonder why so many emergencies occurred, but also to question how they affected Italian democracy.

Seagull on rooftop with the city of Rome behind

Seagull on rooftop with the city of Rome behind (source: gettyimages, Jody Griggs)

A short history of emergencies in Italy

In Italy, like in many liberal democracies, exceptional measures to cope with exceptional situations are a basic tool of statehood. When violent riots broke out after the Italian unification in the 1860s, the royal government repeatedly declared a “state of siege” to reinstall public order and suppress social unrest. After thousands of such royal decrees had been issued in subsequent decades, the Fascist regime followed suit. It subjected “norms having the force of law” to parliamentary approval in “extraordinary situations […] of urgent and absolute necessity” (law 100/1926). Yet, in the totalitarian context of 1926 “parliamentary” did not mean “by an independent supervisory body”.

The introduction of emergency legislation in 1926 (Source: Gazetta Officiale del regno d'Italia)

The introduction of emergency legislation in 1926 (Source: Gazzetta Ufficiale; click for larger image)

The current Republican Constitution thus stands in a long tradition of enabling the government to issue “provisional bills with the force of law”. Just like in 1926, these exceptional measures are presented as necessary and urgent; but nowadays the special legislation goes out of effect if it is not ratified by the parliament within two months. Still, more than 150 years of emergency measures have certainly shaped Italy’s political culture.

This old political practice gained unprecedented importance during the so-called years of lead.  In the 1970s, Italy witnessed terrorism from both political extremes, which had not been taken seriously for too long. Desperate to gain the upper hand, governmental bills introduced legislation that would have been unthinkable under “normal” conditions. Consequently, emergency bills became very important in counterterrorism politics and beyond. Between 1960 and 1980 nearly 1/3 of all legislation was done by such governmental bills, and the use of “emergenza” increased even more sharply than during the Fascist years.

This sort of “accelerated legislation” served to counter a multiplicity of problems, and it has proven especially useful when the government wants to demonstrate its capacity to act. On 11 February 1994, Prime Minister Ciampi declared “Waste Emergency” in Campania and introduced a special commissioner with extraordinary rights. When strikingly little had changed by 2008, Silvio Berlusconi eagerly announced the “Operation Clean Streets” and could regain governmental power partially through this resolute appearance.

Emergencies “piling up”

The waste crisis undeniably put the health of citizens at risk, and every spring the dirty streets of Rome still do. Yet the rhetoric applied to these problems amounted to an overkill of “emergencies”, while the issues themselves often originate from long-term, structural failings. Catastrophic incidents such as the earthquake of 1997 tend to get lost in the multitude of emergencies. Lawyers and philosophers do discuss this “enduring emergency” problematic, but a large share of Italy’s citizens perceives it as everyday “normality”.

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“Italy hit at its heart” – just another emergency (Source: Corriere della Sera)

The increasingly dramatic political rhetoric is actually a political instrument in itself. Branding an issue as “emergency” attributes extreme urgency and absolute necessity to a problem – exactly the requirements for “easy legislation” by decree. In a state where legislative innovations averagely need eleven months to come into vigour, “decreeing” seems a welcome practice to demonstrate fast and efficient acting. Hence, in the last three decades, political communication had an increasingly hysterical tone.

While some of the most questionable bills (such as long preventive custody for criminal suspects) were dropped by the Parliament, many others were converted to law. Or, when the Parliament denied approval, some bills were simply reiterated. In 1996, the Constitutional Court intervened after the government had repeated 558 of 586 lapsed bills. The differences with a genuinely democratic legislation process are undeniably clear.

Consequences of the “enduring emergency”

Following harsh criticisms of the anti-terrorism legislation, in 1982 two criteria for the applicability of exceptional measures were set: temporariness, and proportionality regarding their purpose. As an “emergency” is presented to require strong action, doubts of proportionality are easily quashed with hysterical rhetoric. Limited validity in contrast was at times put on the back burner.

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Italian armed guards at the Collosseum (source: gettyimage, Alberto Pizzoli)

As the years of lead came to a close, waves of terrorists dissociated from their former comrades, and influential voices called for reconciliation – but special legislation remained. As a consequence, Italy still has strong restrictions on civil liberties of terrorist suspects, comparable to the current state of emergency in France. When discussing and problematizing the French exceptional measures, we should bear in mind that Italian prefects already possess the authority to execute perquisitions without a judicial order. The is that Italy has not declared a state of emergency in response to recent terrorism. The Italian measures’ legal basis lies under the “heap” of emergency bills that has been piling up since 1980.

Conclusion: from emergency to normalcy

It is evident that one and a half centuries of abundant alarmist rhetoric has had a persistent effect on Italy’s political culture. Through its inflationary use, “emergenza” has actually stopped being exceptional and instead has become a political device, ‘normalizing’ the abuse of special/extraordinary legislation.

However, there is one straw to clutch at: in spite of the ongoing use of hysterical rhetoric in news coverage, the number of issued emergency bills has now become an easy target for attacking the government. Consequently, the last ten cabinets have reduced their use significantly, from nearly one per day to about 3 per month. Optimists may even begin to hope that a side effect of less “emergency” could be the much-needed “normalcy” of processing parliamentary bills more swiftly.


Lisa Bald, PhD candidate at the IMT School for Advanced Studies in Lucca (Italy), is the first guest contributor to the USHS Blog.