The Euro-marriage, Italian style

The lesson of Turin, of Glasgow, of Munich is that Europe will almost certainly destroy the nation-state
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I'VE SEEN the future of Europe, and it's Italian. There are only two things that bind this disparate nation together. One is obvious: they'll all be rooting for Gli Azzurri in France '98. The Italians take their football seriously - and, unlike us, they are even more excited about what their men get up to with their shorts on, than what they do when en deshabille. However, this is a short-term affair; the passion will subside in weeks even if Baggio does lift the trophy in July. Then the Italians will return to their true object of desire - Europe.

This week, the euro, symbol of Italy's romance with the European Union, will take centre stage in Cardiff. It is the final act of the British Presidency of the European Union and the future of the single currency will hang over every exchange. The Italians will have no doubts, however.

I spent part of the past week in the ancient Italian town of Turin, talking to the Torinese about culture. Not that they need lessons; Turin was Italy's first capital, and seat of its royal family, which they have wisely exiled since 1947. They've got buckets of their own heritage and culture, from medieval palaces and squares, through innumerable jazz and blues festivals, up to a major film festival featuring the work of young moviemakers. However they are enthusiasts for debate and happily borrow from others' traditions.

Perhaps that is why they are so gung-ho about the EU. A cynic might say that this is a nation with a government that suffers from the political equivalent of brittle bone disease and a currency as stable as confetti. Why should we be surprised that the Italians would clutch at the single european currency, much as the chronic drunk might seek the security of the nearest lamppost?

Their desperate desire to be included could be seen as the economic equivalent of the Germans' desire to be a knitted into a broadly democratic Europe which would protect them against the spectre of their own political past.

But the Italian enthusiasm, felt at first hand, is more than just a prop for their insecurity. This is true love. On Italy's first TV channel, RAI Uno, the buffer between programmes carries a clock and a picture of the euro, looking forward to its arrival in 1999. People in Turin say that no Italian would be sorry to see the back of the lira; not even the Germans, who will control the euro more than anyone else, go that far.

The reason for the Italians' euro-romance is not just money. They seem remarkably unworried about their parlous economic state; in spite of the absence of a proper national government - or maybe because of it - the Italians have managed to outgrow Britain for several periods since the 1960s.

Today, Northern Italy still feels prosperous, dominated by the fashion and banking capital Milan and the fast growing Veneto region. A third of Italy's tax revenues come from Milan alone.

The feeling may be different in the mezzogiorno, Italy's south, where the only difference between those cities and the North African cities that face them across the Mediterranean, is the massive subsidy generated by Northern taxpayers.

Sicily still hardly thinks of itself as part of a nation called Italy, except for the purpose of taking a share of the national cake doled out by Rome. But Europe has opened a new chapter on this story of regionalism.

For the north, Europe offers the prospect of a relationship with rich, like-minded city-regions - Paris, Hanover, and, of course, London.

For the south, the EU looks like a veritable trough of regional grant schemes and zones of special status, constructed in the image of the Common Agricultural Policy - money for being not very successful.

For both regions, Europe could be the key that unlocks the chains which have bound them to the centre of a nation-state, represented by the increasingly resented power of Rome. Ditto London and Scotland, ditto Berlin and Bavaria, and Madrid and the Basques.

No wonder then that the nation-states which have the most recent histories - Italy and Germany - and those which are furthest along the road to disintegration - Belgium - are the most enthusiastic about European Union.

The lesson of Turin, of Glasgow, of Munich is that Europe will almost certainly destroy the nation-state. But if the men in Brussels think that the alternative is a single economic and political regime across the continent, they may be missing the signs. A quick visit to Piedmont should put them in the picture.

Europe des regions is just around the corner for all of us; and in some places, it's here already.

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