Berlin Summit: Italian statesman willing to do deals

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The Independent Online
WITHIN MINUTES of Romano Prodi's nomination as the president of the European Commission, Downing Street had issued a statement praising his track record as a former industrialist, an economic liberal and even an arch-privatiser.

It may be a rather selective summary of Mr Prodi's career, but it illustrates the political complexity of the man who was yesterday catapulted into one of Europe's top jobs. On the one hand, the 59-year-old former Italian premier does not belong to the socialist political family that now claims the allegiance of 11 of the 15 EU premiers. But on the other, he has been a leading exponent of efforts to redefine democratic socialism through the "third way" - and last year shared a platform at a seminar on the subject in Washington with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

Mr Prodi and Mr Blair are good enough allies to have shared a shirt-sleeved meal last summer during the annual Blair holiday in Tuscany. There is more than politics in common: Mr Blair loves Italy, and Mr Prodi can count a spell at the London School of Economics on his impressive academic curriculum vitae.

Known as "Il Professore", and seemingly uninterested in the trappings of high office, Mr Prodi has many of the qualities that could symbolise a new start in Brussels. He is personable and down-to-earth and, during his domestic political battle with the multi-millionaire Silvio Berlusconi, was often pictured cycling through the Italian countryside. While his rival used a private helicopter, Mr Prodi took the train.

Sandwiched between Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia and a left that included the former Communist Party, Mr Prodi was ideally placed to front the centre- left Olive Tree Coalition, which came to power in 1996 and fell last autumn. In Italian terms, that counts as a long stretch in power, which some feel bodes well for a man who has many a compromise to broker in his new hot seat.

As head of the coalition in 1996, he toured 100 towns in a bus to find out what Italians really wanted from their leaders, a move that struck Italians as naive but worthy.

His chubby face and Bolognese roots quickly earned him the nickname "Mortadella" - after the famous sausage.

Twice his government was brought to the brink of collapse but survived. On the third occasion, Mr Prodi resigned rather than cut a compromising political deal. He has made no secret of his regret at leaving the prime minister's office and last month formed a new political force, Democratici per l'Ulivo, to contest the European elections. He teamed up with the anti-graft prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro and the mayors of 100 cities in a political initiative that has not pleased the Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema.