Despite the approach of the 2020s, many of Italy’s problems have remained unchanged for years. High unemployment and nepotism continue to drive ambitious young Italians out of the country, while ever-increasing numbers of refugees risk their lives to reach Italian shores. Meanwhile, geological instability has rattled central Italy with a string of destructive earthquakes. Thankfully, it's not all doom and gloom, with positive developments including cutting-edge urban renewal in Milan and hints of a southern Italian revival.

Regions Rattled

Between August 2016 and January 2017, eight major earthquakes rattled the Appenine areas of Lazio, Le Marche, Umbria and Abruzzo in central Italy. The deadliest was a 6.2-magnitude quake on 24 August 2016. The earthquake caused close to 300 fatalities. Most of these were in the Lazio town of Amatrice, where the collapse of buildings deemed seismically sound exposed a lax approach to building codes. Four strong earthquakes struck Abruzzo on 18 January 2017. Of the 34 people killed, 29 perished when a post-quake avalanche slammed into a luxury mountain resort.

According to Italy’s Civil Protection Agency (Dipartimento Protezione Civile), the damage bill from the eight quakes exceeds €23 billion. The tremors have delivered a particular blow to the regions' tourism and agricultural industries, considered backbones of their local economies. While both the Italian government and the EU have poured millions of euros into recovery efforts, some of Italy's fashion giants are also pitching in. Among these is luxury footwear company Tod's, whose new factory in Le Marche plans to boost employment in the local area. Meanwhile in Umbria, fashion mogul Brunello Cucinelli announced plans to finance the restoration of the Benedictine monastery flanking Norcia’s medieval basilica.

Italexit?

While the UK’s Brexit vote has solidified support for the Europe Union across much of the continent, Italy is bucking the trend. Figures released by the Pew Research Centre in 2017 revealed Italy to be the only EU nation where support for the bloc weakened over the previous year. A significant 35% of Italians are now in favour of leaving the EU, compared to 11% in Germany and 22% in France. Italy's figure matches that of Greece, making the two Mediterranean countries the most likely to file for divorce from Brussels. Italy's slipping support has been blamed on growing pessimism about the country’s economic performance and criticism of the EU’s general management of economic issues and Brussels' management of the ongoing refugee crisis. In line with other European nations, pro-EU sentiment in Italy remains strongest among younger generations and the political left.

Refugees & Rhetoric

In the first third of 2017, 46,000 asylum seekers reached Italian shores from Africa, an increase of 30% from the previous year. The figure constituted more than 80% of all refugees who had entered Europe in that period. Indeed, since the EU and Turkey made a pact to block the flow of refugees from Turkey into Greece in 2016, Italy has become the continent's main gateway for asylum seekers.

To many Italians, this influx is merely exacerbating the country's already high unemployment and general economic uncertainty. Similar anxieties have been voiced by some of Italy's political figures. In 2017, the District Attorney of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro, suggested that the very NGOs rescuing refugees at sea could be receiving funding from organised crime syndicates set on flooding Italy with immigrants to destabilise the economy. The accusations have been vehemently refuted by the NGOs, including the Italian branch of Doctors Without Borders.

Cultural Revivals

Despite its enduring political, economic and social challenges, Italy continues to inspire, impress and reinvent. In the north, Milan is back on the global hot list with revamped museums, electric car-sharing schemes and a slew of fresh, contemporary buildings from visionaries like Stefano Boeri, Herzog & de Meuron and the late Zaha Hadid. Parts of southern Italy are also finding their groove. Tourist numbers are soaring in Naples, where improved museums and youth-led cultural initiatives are injecting the city with newfound pride and optimism. Among the city's believers is US tech giant Apple, which opened its first iOS Developer Academy there in 2016.

Further south in Basilicata, Matera is drawing greater tourist numbers in the lead-up to its role as Europe's Capital of Culture in 2019. Matera is also one of five Italian cities slated for a 5G mobile network aimed at attracting high-tech research and innovation companies. Across the Tyrrhenian Sea in Sicily, Palermo is slowly but determinedly moving forward from its dark, mafia-riddled past with a string of urban-renewal projects. In 2018, the city is also set to host Manifesta, Europe’s top biennial of contemporary art.