For the past year, the Castel Romano Designer Outlet 12 miles south of Rome has been the site of a battle over the Sabbath. Its owner, the McArthur Glen Group, operates outlet malls in nine nations and prides itself on its “long-established heritage of drawing inspiration from regional architecture, building materials and traditions” – which explains why the mall looks like a pasteboard Italian village. There is a grandiose cheapness to the place, as if Italy itself were being sold at 70 per cent off an inflated price.

Valeria Ferrara had asked her boss at the Calvin Klein outlet for an occasional Sunday off to spend with her husband and two-year-old son. Rather than grant her request, the company transferred her to a location 30 miles away. Ferrara protested against the decision by chaining herself outside the store. Earlier this month, faced with negative publicity and pressure from a local union, Calvin Klein abandoned its plan to tear mother from son.

We should be cheered by Valeria’s triumph and sobered by how rare it is. Once conceived as a universal right, Sabbath rest is increasingly the privilege of the wealthy few. According to the European Observatory of Working Life, labour on Sunday is becoming more common, with 30 per cent of Europeans working at least one Sunday a month. People in the poorer nations of the European periphery (Greece, Italy, etc) are much likelier to work several Sundays a month than those in wealthier countries. Germans work fewer Sundays than anyone else – even as their political and financial leaders press Sunday labour on other nations.

Ferrara’s case only occurred because Italy liberalised Sunday labour in 2011 at the urging of prime minister Mario Monti, a technocrat installed to please German bankers. Monti’s premiership showed how thoroughly the European Union now embodies that principle attributed to Emperor Joseph II of Austria: “Everything for the people, nothing by the people.” One of the things instituted for but not by the Italian people was a provision that compelled 4.7 million of them to work on Sunday.

Populist movements across Europe have begun to push back. Earlier this year, Poland restricted almost all Sunday shopping with a law backed by the Catholic Church and the Solidarity trade union. Hungary banned Sunday shopping in 2015 but repealed the measure a year later, while retaining 12 public holidays and the right of workers to take Sundays off.

The Five Star Movement and the League, which have just formed a joint government in Italy, both campaigned against Monti’s reform. In 2013, Five Star introduced a law that would bring back Sunday closing. “Let’s once again put the person at the centre of public policy, not these unsuccessful market theories,” said Luigi di Maio, Five Star’s leader. His party’s proposal was denounced by the Council of Europe.

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