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Just as a good number of Germans object to bailing out Greeks they see as feckless and lazy, many northern Italians in the new age of austerity are protesting against pouring their earnings into the black hole of Italy’s mafia-ridden south.

For the Northern League, a Milan-based party founded on aspirations of independence for a mythical “Padania” embracing the Po valley, the eurozone crisis presents a golden opportunity – the break-up of Italy.

Over dinner in a Roman trattoria, Piergiorgio Stiffoni, a veteran Northern League senator, sets out his stall. Padania, he proposes, will take on Italy’s crippling debt – all €1,911bn of it – in exchange for independence, leaving the south with a clean balance sheet and a good crack at going it alone. He is serious. Verona, Padania’s jewel, alone has an economy as big as Greece, he claims. Rather an exaggeration but the point is made – northern Italy is Europe’s richest corner.

In the year that Italy is supposed to be celebrating its 150th birthday as a modern nation, talk of disunity dominates. Umberto Bossi, the Northern League’s ailing leader, this week in Venice symbolically blessed the foreheads of his party faithful with an ampoule of water mixed from the Po and the Piave and called for a referendum on secession.

Nothing of the sort will happen and Bossi’s rantings were widely dismissed as desperate grandstanding to bolster a weakening party. Still, the survival of Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition depends on Bossi’s support and it is clear the northern natives are getting restless.

Porno pension star

Ilone Staller, the former porno star better known as Cicciolina (Little Fleshy One), is turning 60. Her birthday makes news because as a former member of parliament, for only five years from 1987 to 1992, she is entitled to a plump pension of €3,000 ($4,068) a month, another symbol of Italy’s political gravy train.

Mr Berlusconi’s budget, passed last week, imposes austerity on a lot of Italians – higher taxes, spending cuts and a wage freeze for civil servants. Yet the Caste, as the political elite is known, rewrote attempts to make them share the burden.

Banx cartoon

Antonio Merlo, economics professor at Pennsylvania University, calculates the cost of Italy’s parliament with its 945 deputies and senators is about €1.6bn a year, or €27.5 for every Italian – 5.5 times the average paid by US resident for Congress.

Ms Staller protests she worked hard for that pension, giving 60 per cent of her salary to her party and making various legislative initiatives, including sex education in schools. This was not “bunga bunga”, she said, alluding to the tales of raunchy parties hosted by the billionaire prime minister for aspiring starlets.

Protesters clashing with riot police outside parliament last week hurled smokebombs, shoes, a pig’s heart and coins – scenes reminiscent of 18 years ago when leftist students humiliated former prime minister Bettino Craxi by throwing money at him outside Rome’s luxury Raphael Hotel, where he lived before fleeing from corruption charges to Tunisia.

The mask slips

Next Thursday, another former entertainer celebrates a big birthday. Mr Berlusconi is turning 75 and his age is adding to questions about how long Italy’s longest serving post-war prime minister can keep it up. Plastic surgery, make-up and hair implants give an air of a man much younger, as long as the cameras don’t get too close.

Proud of his machismo, the prime minister openly jokes about his love of women and boasts in private of his conquests. Newspapers are full of transcripts of his phone calls intercepted by magistrates who say they suspect he is being blackmailed by a prosthetics businessman acting as his pimp. In one call in January 2009, the Lothario describes his New Year’s celebrations; 11 women queuing outside his room but he only “did” eight of them.

While he denies being blackmailed and says he has never paid for sex, the unending scandals have persuaded even those close to him that the Berlusconi era is coming to an end. Just when and how no one seems to know. Gian Antonio Stella, a prominent critic, says the cosmetics are a metaphor of how he has concealed reality, like the deep financial crisis he long refused to admit to. “Greasepaint works well, in a cosmetic and figurative sense, as long as it does not get too hot,” he writes in Corriere della Sera. “But when it starts to be scorching …”

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