Rome wrestles with drastic cuts

Italy's Northern League is often dismissed as a populist rabble of right-wing, xenophobic opportunists.

But it a rabble that has for 48 hours held Italy – and all of Europe – to ransom by refusing to see its ageing voter-base in its northern heartland lose generous pension rights, in the words of its leader, "just to keep the Germans happy".

As its irascible leader, Umberto Bossi, growled his usual mixture of menaces and reassurances to a scrum of reporters on Monday evening, everyone knew that protecting the eurozone from debt contagion was the last thing on the cabinet member's mind.

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's Prime Minister, was able to claim some kind of pension agreement in Brussels last night after Mr Bossi, his coalition partner, agreed to the raising of the general retirement age to 67 years by 2026.

But Mr Bossi appears to have insisted that those who work for 40 years should still be able to retire earlier. Few observers in Italy or beyond think this arrangement will be enough to satisfy the EU or the markets.

The Northern League can certainly appear crude and Mr Bossi wastes no time on presentation skills. As the world learnt of Muammar Gaddafi's death, even Mr Berlusconi, who is not known for his diplomatic skills, had a stab at statesmanship, intoning in latin: "Sic transit gloria mundi," ("Thus passes the glory of the world").

But Mr Bossi merely spat out the rather less classical: "Now we can send all the Libyan immigrants home."

The reasons for the party's xenophobic reputation are clear enough. In 2009, in Operation White Christmas, the Northern League mayor of Coccaglio, Franco Claretti, attempted to round up as many non-European illegal immigrants as possible before New Year's Eve. For every Mayor Claretti, however, there are smarter League politicians. Italy's Interior Minister is Roberto Maroni. Seeing him in such a powerful job partly explains why the League, which has proved an unreliable ally to Mr Berlusconi in the past, has been reluctant to undermine his lame-duck administration.

And, despite its much-publicised anti-immigration stance, the League is not truly a right-wing party. Its supporters are in the main working class, centre-left voters, recruited in the 1980s on the back of rising discontent with what they saw as a corrupt central government dishing out their taxes to the lazy south of Italy.

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