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Italy's tragic earthquake may pull nation back together

The cruel earthquake in southern Italy already has won its place in the history books as the most devastating to strike that troubled yet lovely land this century.

What remains to be seen is whether it eventually will be recorded also as the long- needed catalyst to bring:

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* A better deal, long overdue, to Italy's neglected, poverty-stricken, and sometimes near-medieval Mezzogiorno or South. This would entail a revision of its relationship with the whole.

The climate is in many ways propitious for both -- psychologically and historically.

At the psychological level, well before the earthquake, the perennial cast in Italy's cabal-and-maneuver politics had discovered a chronically cynical public's usual shrug and grimace of resignation was giving way to open demands for a higher level of morality in public life.

This pent-up desire for public morality exploded into the general exasperation unloosed at the tardiness, sloppiness, and ineffectiveness of the authorities' initial rescue efforts after the Nov. 23 earthquake.

The public's explosion was contained and channeled, at least temporarily, when spry, octogenarian, and often unconventional President Pertini came back from the earthquake area Nov. 26 and went on television to voice what he knew was the national anger.

"Without doubt," President Pertini said, "there were grave inadequacies." (The latest official figure puts the number killed in the earthquake at 2,614. But it has affected in one way or another the lives of between 7 million and 8 million people living in a total area of nearly 10,000 square miles.)

Now for the historical level. The rest of Italy and the Mezzogiorno are, in fact, coming to a turning point in the relationship that has persisted between them since unification in 1870.

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The south has always been a world apart. It belongs to the Mediterranean; it is deeply roman Catholic, rural rather than urban, poor but warn-hearted, alternating between stagnation and violent spasm. The rest of Italy, connected through history to France and Austria, has tended to face northward, not southward, and is a part of industrialized modern Europe. Its attitude toward the South is a mixture of contempt and pity.

Over the past 30 years the Mezzogiorno has seen two main streams, running in opposite directions, yet which should have had the net effect of bringing the region more firmly into the rest of Italy and Europe. The one was the flow of capital southward from Rome through the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, the government development agency for the South. The other was the flow, at one time the flood , of millions of migrants northward from the South to the great industrial cities of the North.

The positive impact of both has been minimal. The Mezzogiorno, on a per capita basis, remains the poorest of all the regions designated as underdeveloped within the European Community. Of the two biggest industrial projects in the South, the success of the steel plant at Taranto remains uncertain and the Alfa Romeo automobile plant outside Naples still cannot break even. The general recession in Europe is hitting hard the labor-intensive industries in northern Italy where southerners have flocked to work. In cities like Turin, home of Fiat, the social and political problems exacerbate both the climate of terrorism and endemic northern prejudices against the south.

Against this bleak background -- all the grimmer because of the earthquake -- two structural developments affecting the South are impending. One, internal, is the expiry on Dec. 31 of the law under which the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno has operated as a development agency with executive powers of its own for three decades. The other, external, is the Jan. 1 entry of Greece into the European Community (EC). Two other southern European lands, spain and Portugal, are in the process of negotiating admission.

Given the impact the devastation of the November earthquake has had on the national consciousness, it is hard to believe that the rest of Italy's continued to prserving the southern development agency in a mere consultative role -- which is what its post-Dec. 31 powers will amount to.

The opening of the EC southward could help. With Greece to the Mezzogiorno's east and spain and Portugal to its west -- all eventually within the hitherto northern- dominated EC -- the latter will gain a Mediterranean dimension (and lobby) that it has not had befor. The scenario could then be set for Italy's Mezzogiorno at last to become part of Europe rather than an impoverished appendix to it.

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