The past month has been marked by clashes between Italy, which now has ministers drawn from the neo-Fascist-led National Alliance, and socialist politicians from across Europe. The Belgian telecommunications minister ostentatiously refused to shake the hand of his opposite number; five Danish MPs threatened a boycott of Italian goods; and socialist members of the European Parliament said they would have no contact with neo-Fascist ministers and would refuse to approve a commission containing neo-Fascist members.
The handshaking incident has its funny side. The Italian minister reminded his colleagues that the handshake had been made illegal under Fascist rule. The Belgian minister read a short statement, which was followed by a stilted discussion of the role of democracy. Everyone agreed to agree, and the tension was dissolved.
But there is at least one serious worry about the return of the right in Italy.
Problems linger between Italy and Slovenia, the former Yugoslav republic that separated in 1991. The EU regards Slovenia as being a candidate for membership, but Italy is blocking this, raising the question of wartime compensation, a move that may provoke the ire of its Union partners.
As Bill Clinton pointed out on his visit to Rome, these people were elected by Italians; they are democratically chosen members of a national government. It is hard for the institutions of the EU to ostracise them. Individuals can make their point, but that is all.
There is a broader issue, too. The EU was designed as a buttress against the revival of the extremist nationalist tensions of the inter-war years. Yet it increasingly faces a revival of nationalist tensions. Jacques Delors has said several times that the 'family spirit' in Europe is declining, and a German diplomat last week commented sadly that 'the democratic, liberal, communautaire veneer is starting to wear thin'.
In the absence of family spirit, the EU has a large corpus of laws, rules, directives and treaties that member states are supposed to abide by. There are sanctions if they fail and there are bodies appointed to police them.
These go further than the EU itself. The Council of Europe has agreed conventions on democracy and human rights; membership of the United Nations brings other responsibilities; and there is a plethora of international laws that in theory prevent states from unilaterally acting as they wish, either domestically or abroad.
In theory; but what about in practice? It is difficult to discipline governments that refuse to keep EU rules. Greece has, according to the European Commission, broken its obligations under the EU treaty by maintaining a blockade of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. It has been taken to the European Court of Justice, but a decision will not be announced until after the Corfu summit later this month. Even then, it will probably not have much impact.
Sovereign states in the EU retain a vast array of privileges. It is all but impossible for a supranational body such as the EU to coerce them legally; they keep rules because they want to, or because it is to their advantage, or because other states pressure them into it. When a state breaks the rules - Iran, Libya, North Korea are examples - it is remarkably difficult to discipline it.
Italy is far from being a rogue state in this sense. But if the assumptions behind the EU gradually unravel, if states take to interpreting laws and treaties as they wish, and if the pursuit of national interest once more becomes the rule, the EU may find itself in a serious dilemma. The day when two men could not shake hands may come to seem more significant.
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