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Emilio Colombo: Politician who helped shape modern Europe


Apart perhaps from Giulio Andreotti, his fellow Christian Democrat and occasional rival who died seven weeks before him, no single politician embodied the history of postwar Italy, with all its successes and failures, more completely than Emilio Colombo.

Like Andreotti, Colombo was a member of the constituent assembly that between June 1946 and January 1948 drew up a republican constitution to replace the Savoy monarchy terminally discredited by its support for Mussolini and the country's defeat in the Second World War. Over the next half-century Italian governments came and went at dizzying speed and for near-incomprehensible reasons. In them, however, Colombo was a virtual constant. At one time or another he held almost every major office, including the prime ministership between 1970 and 1972.

Within his party he was a centrist, a convinced European, staunch Atlanticist and devout Catholic who firmly opposed the entry into power of the powerful Italian Comunist party. Yet he helped bring about far reaching social reforms, including housing programmes, land redistribution and the nationalisation of electricity – not to mention the 1971 law, seen as a major victory for the anti-clerical movement, that for the first time allowed divorce in Italy, but hastened the fall of his government.

His biggest contribution however was economic. Italy today might be regarded as one of Europe's sick men, but in the 1950s and 1960s, it was a posterchild for growth. First as minister for Trade and Industry, then as Minister of the Treasury, the post equivalent to Chancellor of the Exchequer which Colombo held for seven straight years, he was an architect of the miracolo economico that transformed a war-shattered country into the world's seventh-largest industrial power, and the oft-derided lira into a notably stable currency.

In modern parlance, he was as much a technocrat as a conventional Catholic politician. Immaculately dressed, unfailingly courteous and discreet, he was often referred to as the "lay cardinal". Alighiero Noschese, a leading Italian comedian of the time, used to depict him as a priest with, a saintly smile and a missal at his elbow, extolling the divine wonders of the lira.

Emilio Colombo was born in Potenza, capital of the southern region of Basilicata, one of Italy's poorest. Armed with a law degree from Rome University (and the backing of a local bishop), he embarked on a political career in the Catholic Action youth movement and was elected to the constituent assembly in 1946. Government appointments followed, mostly in the agricultural and economic fields.

From the outset he sought to anchor Italy within the West, and as a reliable US ally (neither condition a certainty given the strength of the Italian Communist Party, the largest in Western Europe and in those days a loyal follower of Moscow.) He helped write the 1957 Treaty of Rome that set up the European Economic Community and later served as president of the European Parliament from 1977 to 1979. Europe, he said in a speech to the Jean Monnet Foundation in 2011, less than two years before his death, had been "the pole star of my political career."

His support for the US, both overt and clandestine, was no less unwavering. During his first spell as foreign minister, between 1980 and 1983, Colombo advocated deploying medium-range US nuclear missiles in Europe; earlier, during his prime ministership, it has since emerged to the surprise of few, his Christian Democrat party took money from the CIA.

In 1992, amid the Tangentopoli bribery and kickbacks scandal that would destroy the political parties of Italy's so-called "First Republic", Colombo returned to government for a final time as Foreign Minister, between August 1992 and April 1993. But as a major political figure he had faded, and the rest was mainly honorifics. In 2003 he was named a Senator for Life, and in March 2013, after February's inconclusive elections, by dint of seniority he briefly became Speaker of the National Assembly.

His private life, however, did produce surprises. Implicated in a 2003 high society drug investigation, he admitted having used cocaine for "therapeutic" purposes. In fact, cocaine use is not illegal in Italy; the admission was mainly to ensure that his security men were not convicted of the serious charge of procuring the drug.

Then there were the constant murmurs of homosexuality. Colombo, who once described politics as a kind of priesthood, never married, and his rumoured sexual orientation may have prevented him from being considered for President, a post for which he was otherwise eminently qualified. But unlike some more recent Italian prime ministers he was the model of discretion, whose private foibles had no bearing on his public duties.

He was anything but immune to the corruption inherent to Italian politics. But the money and jobs Colombo's patronage secured for Potenza and Basilicata could be defended as channelling needed money to the impoverished south. And for many Italians, contemplating the antics of Silvio Berlusconi and the dysfunction of today's Second Republic, the first one that featured Colombo may not seem too bad after all.

Emilio Colombo, politician: born Potenza, Basilicata, Italy 11 April 1920; Prime Minister of Italy 1970-72; Foreign Minister 1980-83, 1992-1993; President, European Parliament 1977-1979; named Senator for Life 2003; died Rome 24 June 2013.