Italy prison island, birthplace of European dream

The island of Ventotene, an ancient volcano off the coast of Naples where the leaders of Italy, France and Germany meet on Monday for talks on the EU's future, is where the dream of a united Europe was born.

Italy prison island, birthplace of European dream
On a nearby, rocky outcrop called Santo Stefano, the Bourbons built a horse-shoe shaped prison in 1797. Photo: Simone Carlotti

With its white granite rocks and turquoise waters, the island, the second largest in the Pontine archipelago, has a long history as a place of punishment and torture for the exiled and outcast.

Known in Roman times as Pandataria, it was first famed for housing emperor Augustus's daughter Julia the Elder after she was charged with adultery, before emperor Nero exiled his wife Octavia here.

On a nearby, rocky outcrop called Santo Stefano, the Bourbons built a horse-shoe shaped prison in 1797, made up of 99 cells set around a circular watchtower, with room for over 600 prisoners.

It was used by the fascist regime during the Second World War as a place to which to banish political dissidents, with some 2,000 inmates languishing on Ventotene, by then dubbed the “island of confinement”.

Santo Stefano prison. Photo: John Worth/Flickr

Among them was Altiero Spinelli, a journalist and communist activist, who was sentenced in 1927 to 16 years in prison for his writings criticising the rise to power of Benito Mussolini.

Transferred to the island in 1941, it was during his detention here that he secretly drew up with fellow prisoner Ernesto Rossi the “Ventotene Manifesto”, one of the founding texts of European federalism.

The brigand, the president

Written on sheets of cigarette paper and hidden in a tin box with a double bottom, the manifesto “for a free and united Europe” was smuggled to the continent by Ursula Hirschmann, a German anti-fascist activist, and circulated among the Italian resistance.

The idea was to create a federation of European states which would tie the countries of Europe and prevent future wars between them.

Spinelli asked to be buried on the island, and Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande will lay flowers on his grave on Monday.

Renzi picked the symbolic site for the crisis talks on the European project's future “to pay homage to what happened during what was perhaps the most difficult moment in the history of European identity”.

The island was taken back under Allied control in 1943 under the cover of darkness by a small unit of American troops which tricked the stationed German garrison into surrendering without a shot fired.

The volcanic rocks, sandy beaches and underwater grottos of Ventotene are now peopled with tourists and scuba diving fanatics rather than outcast Roman women or anti-fascists.

Unused since 1965, its dilapidated jail – once home to such illustrious inmates as the brigand Carmine Crocco and the future president of Italy Sandro Pertini – has fallen slowly into ruin.

In February, Renzi announced an 80-million-euro ($90-million) plan to restore it and turn the abandoned lockup into a museum and academy for the EU's elite.

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The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary

The euro on Saturday marked 20 years since people began to use the single European currency, overcoming initial doubts, price concerns and a debt crisis to spread across the region.

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary
The Euro is projected onto the walls of the European Central Bank in Brussels. Photo: Daniel Rolund/AFP

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called the euro “a true symbol for the strength of Europe” while European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde described it as “a beacon of stability and solidity around the world”.

Euro banknotes and coins came into circulation in 12 countries on January 1, 2002, greeted by a mix of enthusiasm and scepticism from citizens who had to trade in their Deutsche marks, French francs, pesetas and liras.

The euro is now used by 340 million people in 19 nations, from Ireland to Germany to Slovakia. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are next in line to join the eurozone — though people are divided over the benefits of abandoning their national currencies.

European Council President Charles Michel argued it was necessary to leverage the euro to back up the EU’s goals of fighting climate change and leading on digital innovation. He added that it was “vital” work on a banking union and a capital markets
union be completed.

The idea of creating the euro first emerged in the 1970s as a way to deepen European integration, make trade simpler between member nations and give the continent a currency to compete with the mighty US dollar.

Officials credit the euro with helping Europe avoid economic catastrophe during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Clearly, Europe and the euro have become inseparable,” Lagarde wrote in a blog post. “For young Europeans… it must be almost impossible to imagine Europe without it.”

In the euro’s initial days, consumers were concerned it caused prices to rise as countries converted to the new currency. Though some products — such as coffee at cafes — slightly increased as businesses rounded up their conversions, official statistics have shown that the euro has brought more stable inflation.

Dearer goods have not increased in price, and even dropped in some cases. Nevertheless, the belief that the euro has made everything more expensive persists.

New look

The red, blue and orange banknotes were designed to look the same everywhere, with illustrations of generic Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture to ensure no country was represented over the others.

In December, the ECB said the bills were ready for a makeover, announcing a design and consultation process with help from the public. A decision is expected in 2024.

“After 20 years, it’s time to review the look of our banknotes to make them more relatable to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds,” Lagarde said.

Euro banknotes are “here to stay”, she said, although the ECB is also considering creating a digital euro in step with other central banks around the globe.

While the dollar still reigns supreme across the globe, the euro is now the world’s second most-used currency, accounting for 20 percent of global foreign exchange reserves compared to 60 percent for the US greenback.

Von der Leyen, in a video statement, said: “We are the biggest player in the world trade and nearly half of this trade takes place in euros.”

‘Valuable lessons’

The eurozone faced an existential threat a decade ago when it was rocked by a debt crisis that began in Greece and spread to other countries. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus were saved through bailouts in return for austerity measures, and the euro stepped back from the brink.

Members of the Eurogroup of finance ministers said in a joint article they learned “valuable lessons” from that experience that enabled their euro-using nations to swiftly respond to fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

As the Covid crisis savaged economies, EU countries rolled out huge stimulus programmes while the ECB deployed a huge bond-buying scheme to keep borrowing costs low.

Yanis Varoufakis, now leader of the DiEM 25 party who resigned as Greek finance minister during the debt crisis, remains a sharp critic of the euro. Varoufakis told the Democracy in Europe Movement 25 website that the euro may seem to make sense in calm periods because borrowing costs are lower and there are no exchange rates.

But retaining a nation’s currency is like “automobile assurance,” he said, as people do not know its value until there is a road accident. In fact, he charged, the euro increases the risk of having an accident.