Thatcher's bogey man lies in wait at EU summit

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The Independent Online

Umberto Vattani is hardly a household name in his native Italy, but the balding diplomat who will play a key role in the European Union summit when it starts tomorrow is well known to the Foreign Office.

The multilingual Mr Vattani is Italy's ambassador to the EU. He is a close aide to Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, who will host the meeting as the holder of the EU's rotating presidency. Thirteen years ago, he helped orchestrate one of Britain's biggest European summit disasters, the catalyst for Margaret Thatcher's downfall.

This weekend, as EU leaders wrangle over the text of a new constitution for the EU, the collective diplomatic effort of Downing Street and the Foreign Office will be devoted to ensuring that a similar fate does not befall Tony Blair.

Mr Vattani is seen in Brussels as the man who has held together Italy's six-month EU presidency, despite the gaffes of Mr Berlusconi. The 65-year-old, who speaks excellent English and French, was once tipped to become Italy's Foreign Minister.

In the Justus Lipsius Building in Brussels, home of the EU's Council of Ministers, he is often seen speaking into his mobile phone; the joke is that he needs to be in constant contact to keep pace with the political turmoil in Rome.

In 1990 Mr Vattani was allied to Giulio Andreotti, an Italian premier with a lower profile than Mr Berlusconi.During Italy's six-month presidency of the EU at that time, Mrs Thatcher made little secret of her disdain for its chairmanship and on at least one occasion gave him a trademark "handbagging". Mr Vattani was with Mr Andreotti at a meeting with Mrs Thatcher at Chequers, the Prime Minister's country estate, when the tone of the gathering deteriorated rapidly. In the helicopter ride back to London the Italian Prime Minister acknowledged that he and his British counterpart had agreed on absolutely nothing.

Mrs Thatcher's underestimation of Mr Andreotti was to cost her dearly. Mr Vattani was again present on 27 October 1990, in Rome, when the 11 other member states agreed on preparations for economic and monetary union and for further European integration, leaving the UK isolated.

The Italian version is that there was no conspiracy, and that the UK spurned Mr Vattani's best efforts to achieve a consensus. But British officials saw it as a ruthless act of revenge for Mrs Thatcher's rudeness and intransigence.

Diplomatic humiliation for Britain arrived at a late-night press conference in Rome, when the presidency read a long list of items agreed by 11 countries, noting that only one nation, Britain, was not in accord. The following week Mrs Thatcher reported on the summit to the House of Commons and, in answer to a question on further EU integration, made the famous outburst: "No, no, no!". It sparked the resignation of Britain's Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, and within weeks she was Prime Minister no longer.

The parallels between Mrs Thatcher's predicament in 1990 and that of Mr Blair should not be overstated, even if the current Prime Minister's political position is unusually weak. This summit aims to agree on an EU constitution, and the big obstacle comes not from the UK but from Spain and Poland. They oppose reform of a voting system agreed in Nice three years ago that gives them 27 votes, two fewer than Germany, which has twice their population.

Nevertheless, the tactics deployed by the Italian presidency, over which Mr Vattani will have a crucial influence, could be dangerous for Mr Blair. The UK still has about five or six important items it needs to change in the draft text for the constitution. Mr Blair has a series of "red lines" that he is committed not to cross on issues that include keeping the national veto in all areas of taxation, foreign policy and decisions on the UK budget rebate.

The nightmare for British diplomats would be if the Spanish/Polish problem is resolved early, leaving the UK as the main obstacle to an agreement. Mr Blair would then have to hold out against pressure from EU leaders anxious to wind up the summit and go home. As one British source put it: "We expect this to be difficult. There is a possibility that some of our red-line issues could get left until last."

That may explain why the British government has been at pains not to criticise the Italian presidency in general, or its main representative in Brussels. Mr Blair has stood by Mr Berlusconi and, asked about Mr Vattani, British diplomats refuse to utter a word of criticism.

This time there is no question of underestimating him or of forgetting 1990 when, as one of those who were close to Mrs Thatcher put it, the Italians "stitched her up".