What £3 of sausage tells us about Europe

A recent court case in Italy over a small amount of cheese and sausage may seem trivial, says Merryn Somerset Webb. But it speaks volumes for the state of the eurozone.

Earlier this week the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation (Italy's highest court of appeal) ruled that theft is not always a crime. In 2015, Roman Ostriakov tried to steal around £3-worth of food from a shop in Genoa. He was convicted and fined €100. The court has overturned that conviction on the basis that the crime was one of absolute necessity: the food was taken in "the face of immediate and essential need for nourishment".

Interesting? Shocking? There will be a range of reactions to this, for a range of different reasons. But the key point to take away is one made by another Italian paper, Corriere Della Sera: that there are a lot of hungry people in today's Italy and they can't all go to prison. This ruling simply reflects the courts adjusting to what is now "reality".

This matters, because it gives us a hint of how things might develop from here. Last week,Mervyn King and I talked about the miseries building inside the euro area as governments try to hold the currency together via internal devaluation (wages are down 6%-15% across the weaker eurozone countries since the crisis).

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In this week's issue, you will see the second part of the interview. We agree that governments are not stepping up to the plate to solve the problems resulting from the financial crisis and that means that other, unelected, bodies are increasingly stepping in.

Up until now, that has meant the big central banks. King reckons the Bank of England has so far been careful not to stray beyond its mandate (although you can argue that all quantitative easing is effectively fiscal policy, in the way in which it redistributes wealth to those with assets already). But he concedes that there is concern that the Federal Reserve, the American central bank, went "way beyond its mandate" in the crisis and that should the European Central Bank buy private-sector assets as well as government bonds, it will "become a political actor".

It's also worth worrying about what happens when the central banks decide to go for full-scale monetisation of the debt on their balance sheets or for helicopter money (which they surely will in the end). That would make them all very serious political actors, in that they choose who gains from these policies and who does not.

However, what the Italian court case over £3-worth of cheese and sausage suggests is that there are new players in the game of stepping into the yawning gap left by political failure Italy's courts, noting that the elected government is apparently incapable of distributing wealth effectively, has taken a step towards doing it for them.

For anyone who thought that the eurozone was either "strong and successful" (as its politicians like to say) or made up of what we like to think of as democracies, the story of Ostriakov, and how a court chose what they saw as his basic survival rights over someone else's property rights, should be a wake-up call.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.