Italy - A Country Overview

Information on Italy; its place geographically, history, government, climate, security, tourism and foreigners living in Italy...

Geography

Measuring 301,000 Km2, Italy has only four land borders. All the borders are to the north of the country and are with France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia. The rest of the country consists of the Italian peninsula, the islands of Sardinia and Sicily and numerous smaller island groups. Italy also has an exclave in Switzerland called Campione d'Italia.

Within the country there are the two independent enclaves; Vatican City and San Marino.

Situated on the meeting point of the Eurasian and African plates, Italy has considerable seismic activity including three active volcanoes (Mount Etna, Mount Vesuvius and Stromboli) and regular earthquakes. Italy is bordered to the north by the Alps, while the Apennine mountain range runs down through the peninsula.

History

Italy has a long, rich and varied history. Excavations across the country have revealed human presence dating back 200,000 years to the Palaeolithic period.

In the 7th and 8th centuries BC ancient Greek colonialists settled in the south of Italy and along the Sicilian coastline. At the same time ancient Rome was founded as an agricultural community. Over time the two colonies merged and grew to what we know today as the Roman Empire.

In the late 4th century AD The Roman Empire dissolved under pressure from Germanic tribes from the north such as the Vandals, Goths and Franks. The area was reduced to independent kingdoms and city-states.

In the 15th century a new way of thinking and resurgence in cultural activities saw the beginning of what is known as the Renaissance. Throughout the period, painting, poetry, philosophy, trade, reading and writing flourished in Italy making the area a centre for learning and education.

During the Napoleonic Wars of the 17th to 19th centuries the northern part of Italy was invaded, reorganised and renamed the 'Kingdom of Italy'. This northern territory was run by varying houses and monarchs as an Italian client state of France, while the King of Naples ruled the south.

Following three wars of independence and the disastrous Franco-Prussian war for the French, Napoleon abandoned his position in Rome and Italy rushed to fill the gap that he left. The country's capital was moved from Florence to Rome and Italian unification was achieved.

In the late 1800's Italy became a colonial power by conquering Libya, Somalia and Eritrea. In 1915 it pledged to fight in The Great War alongside Britain and France in exchange for the territories of Trento, Trieste, Dalmatia and Istria that belonged to the Ottoman Empire. 650,000 Italian soldiers died and the Italian economy collapsed.

Fearing a socialist uprising after the war, Nationalists and liberals, supported by King Victor Emmanuel III, began to endorse the National Fascist Party led my Mussolini. After a coup and the Marcia su Roma, Mussolini seized power, banned all political parties, and imposed a dictatorship.

Following the invasion of Ethiopia and the exclusion from the League of Nations in 1935, Italy allied itself with Germany and Japan while lending considerable support to fascist Spain. Italy was defeated in 1943 and was a battlefield for the remaining two years of the war. 500,000 Italians died in the conflict.

Italy became a Republic in 1946 after King Umberto's abdication and during the Cold War years the country allied itself to the west. Italy benefited greatly from the economic aid offered by the Marshall Plan and enjoyed growth until the 1960s. However, from the 1960s to the 1980s there were economic and political hardships in the country, with social conflicts and terrorist acts.

During the 1990s and as a result of the 'Clean Hands' investigation resulting from massive government debt and corruption, political reform followed. Many of the old political parties dissolved or split.

Politics and Government

Under the President of the Italian Republic, Italy is governed as a parliamentary, democratic republic and multi-party system. Under the leadership of a Prime Minister (Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri), executive power is executed by a council of ministers. Legislative power is executed jointly by the council of ministers and parliament. Italy's judiciary is independent from the council of ministers and parliament and is the country's third power block.

Elected by parliament for a seven-year term, the President (currently Giorgio Napolitano) has the responsibilities of appointing the Prime Minister (currently Silvio Berlusconi), heading the judiciary and commanding the armed forces.

Parliament is elected and consists of the Chamber of Deputies, with 630 seats and the Senate of the Republic, which has 315 members. Italian citizens over the age of 18 can vote for candidates for the Chamber of Deputies, but have to be over 25 to vote for senators. Both houses are elected for five-year terms but can be dissolved by the President if a suitable government cannot be formed.

Seats are made available for candidates representing Italian citizens living abroad.

Economy

As of 2008, Italy was the world's seventh largest economy and the fourth largest in Europe. It is a founding member of the G8 nations, the EU and the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

As a developed country, Italy has high levels of freedom for investment and business, with a quality of life ranked eighth highest in the world, according to The Economist.

Italy has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the European Union and is well known for its agricultural, fashion, automotive and industrial sectors. It is the world's fourth biggest earner from tourism and one of the largest wine producers in the world.

Italy has a significant north/south divide, with the rich north far above the EU GDP average, while parts of the south are far below.

Italy imports the vast majority of its raw materials from abroad and in 2006 it is estimated that Italy imported around 86 percent of its total energy consumption. Italy's economy is further weakened by a lack of investment in research, infrastructure and market reforms, as well as having a high public deficit.

Climate

Although highly diverse according to the region, Italy is considered to have a temperate seasonal climate. The southern half of the country generally experiences a climate one would expect from a Mediterranean country, with hot summers and mild winters. The northern areas and inland could be described as humid continental, while other inland areas at altitude experience very harsh winters.

Security

On the whole Italy is a safe and relatively crime-free country. Public drunkenness and violent crime are very rare, although the usual crimes such as pick pocketing are present in the large towns and cities.

According to the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, 24.6 percent of Italian citizens have been a victim of crime. This figure is below the rates for Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Netherlands and Sweden but, significantly, is higher than Canada, the USA, Slovenia, France and Portugal amongst others.

Italy has the highest number of police officers in Europe, yet only 54 percent of the Italian population believe in their efficiency.

The country is blighted by high levels of corruption and organised crime, ranked the highest of all Western European countries by the Corruption Perception Index.

Immigration

Italy is a popular destination for emigration. As of 2010 there are over 4.25 million official foreign nationals residing in Italy. The unofficial number of illegal immigrants in Italy has been estimated to be around 690,000.

Since the expansion of the European Union, people from Romania have become the largest number of immigrants into Italy. Other significant ethnic groups that have immigrated to Italy include people from North Africa, Albania, China, Ukraine, Latin America and non-Chinese Asians.

Tourism

Attracted by the weather and a plethora of history and art, in 2009 Italy was the fifth most popular worldwide tourist destination, with 43.2 million visitors.

Italy is renowned for its gastronomy and attractions include the beaches, lakes, countryside, mountains and more specific attractions such as The Colosseum, the gondolas in Venice and the ruins of Pompeii.

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