'Wild man' Bossi blasts back on to political stage

The wild man of Italian politics, Umberto Bossi, founder and leader of the xenophobic and separatist Northern League, returned to the national stage at the weekend, addressing his party's annual congress 17 months after being in hospital with a stroke.

In his heyday, Mr Bossi, the former bricklayer and maths tutor who gave the disaffected small businessmen of northern Italy a voice in Parliament, was famous for his ranting speeches which went on for hours. Yesterday, looking 10 years older, his face frozen in a grimace and his left arm still paralysed, he struggled to speak for 12 minutes. At his side, his wife, Manuela, handed him the papers from which he read.

But after a shocked silence, the true believers of the Northern League at the annual congress in Pontida roared their approval. Some dropped to their knees, some wept. Others chanted his name, "Um-ber-to", or that of the imaginary region, Padania, encompassing the northern half of Italy, that he declared independent unilaterally - and absurdly - nine years ago.

Despite the lunatic rhetoric for which he is famous - on Sunday he blasted the EU for passing an (imaginary) bill legalising paedophilia - Mr Bossi has been a key ally of Silvio Berlusconi's in the centre-right coalition.

He resigned as minister for reforms after his crippling illness but the League remains a key component of the ruling coalition, Mr Berlusconi's northern counterpoise against the power of the post-Fascist National Alliance, whose main strongholds are in the centre and south.

But Mr Bossi used his 12-minute speech to trash Mr Berlusconi's dream of uniting the centre-right forces in a single party under his command. "There is already such a party," he said in a weak and tremulous voice, "It's us. The League has always been capable of fighting the necessary struggles, every time."

He also reiterated his party's criticism of Europe.

It was Roberto Calderoli, the Northern League MP who is Minister of Welfare in Mr Berlusconi's government who made headline news across Europe when he suggested Italy should withdraw from the Euro and go back to the lira. Mr Bossi avoided endorsing Mr Calderoli's proposal, which has been ridiculed by all other sections of Italian politics but took up arms against Europe's failure to defend the businessmen of northern Italy who are reeling under the impact of Chinese textile and shoe imports.

To help Italian firms, he insisted, "We have said that tariffs should be reintroduced." To prevent Italian companies going bust, "we have already said that the rules of the World Trade Organisation must be changed. But nothing has been done."

"This Europe," he said, "has failed, as we said it would" - referring to the failure of the Luxembourg summit to reach agreement on the Union's budget.

Mr Bossi's hostile remarks about Europe prompted criticism from former president of the European Commission Romano Prodi, whose attempt to lead the centre-left into the next general election is up in the air. "The League is the only Italian party that is anti-European," he said. "And this is certainly a problem". Italy, he went on, is still a modern country "because it became one thanks to Europe. Outside Europe we will be devoured and ground down."

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