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Italy content with living the sweet life

A booming Spain could give the nation a needed economic boost.

February 04, 2007|Colleen Barry | Associated Press Writer

MILAN, ITALY — Until recently, Italians thought of Spain mainly as an inexpensive place to take a vacation from their daily toils.

Now, Italians are uneasily looking over their shoulder as the Spanish threaten to outstrip them in per capita GDP. The reversal of fortunes has become fodder for newspaper columns and dinner party chatter.

"It's a pity for Italy, because we could do better," said Maria Pia, a physician in Milan.

But does that mean an economic revolution is around the corner? Don't count on it. Italy's dolce vita, or sweet life, is still alive and well -- and most people are wary of change.

"They think they live better than most people, and they think they have more to lose by making changes," said James Hansen, a consultant who follows Italian business trends.

Not everyone wants to remain content with a fine plate of pasta and a glass of Chianti.

Thoughts of Italy's heyday as cultural and industrial trailblazer -- the home of film legends Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini and of leading brands like Fiat, Ferrari and Olivetti -- can bring uncomfortable reminders of lost glory.

"You can enjoy the Italian way of life and you can sit and relax," said Tommaso Nannicini, a 32-year-old economist. "But you should be aware that this is coming at a price, and the price is that other countries are growing faster than you."

Italy's best and brightest are increasingly seeking opportunity abroad. Nannicini, for example, is a visiting professor in Spain, at the University of Madrid.

In Spain, he said, "I know that my status next year depends on my performance, while in Italy, I know if I win a university position, I am there for life. Nobody cares about my performance if I get into the system."

Premier Romano Prodi's repeated appeals for profound reforms have yielded little -- and face stiff resistance even from within his center-left coalition with deep union ties.

Wounded pride aside, Spain's good news isn't necessarily bad news economically for Italy.

"It is actually a good thing. If an economy grows fast, it is buying more things abroad. It means essentially that Spaniards will be buying more Italian food, wine and machinery," said Francesco Daveri, an economist at the University of Parma.

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