Europe awaits Italy's big aria

The next six months are crucial for the EU. Andrew Gumbel asks if the new presidency can cope
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The Independent Online
Italy might seem an inauspicious sort of country to be presiding over the European Union for the next six months. After all, it is having trouble bringing even a semblance of order to its own political affairs, so what hope is there of co-ordinating the diverse, and often clashing, aspirations of 15 EU member states in the next, crucial phase of their integration?

As it steps into the hot seat, Italy finds itself still with an unelected Prime Minister in Lamberto Dini, a stopgap government that has only survived for lack of viable alternatives, political parties that are forever threatening to plunge the nation into deep institutional crisis by sabotaging even the most urgent legislation, and public finances so chaotic that they are rapidly pushing the country out of the running for economic and monetary union.

Hardly a promising basis from which to co-ordinate the start of what has been called "Maastricht II", the Inter-Governmental Conference. In the coming months the EU presidency will be expected to conduct delicate negotiations on the mechanics of the looming single European currency, and think seriously about expanding the EU to the south and east. It does not help that the current Italian Foreign Minister, Susanna Agnelli, gives off the air of a high-society hostess rather than a high-level negotiator, and is known to have little patience with the nitty-gritty of European business.

And yet the Italian presidency may turn out to be much less awful than it looks on paper. Precisely because the country is in such great domestic turmoil, it is determined to make a good showing in the international arena, to maintain what is left of its credibility with its European partners.

In part, this will be down to showmanship. Italians know as well as anyone how to put on an impressive theatrical performance, and the architectural beauties of Turin (for the IGC inauguration) and Florence (for the end- of-term summit), not to mention their culinary prowess, are sure to put visiting ministers in an upbeat mood before they so much as step into their meetings.

But there will be more to the Italian presidency than pasta and sunshine. For all the uncertainty at the top of the political ladder, the European affairs team at the Farnesina, Italy's foreign ministry, is a tight-knit, broadly competent group, well used to getting on with the job while the ministers squabble, perform U-turns, resign or fall victim to government crises.

For 40 years Italy's senior civil servants have co-ordinated a coherent, ardently pro-European line which is unlikely to be disrupted now. For this presidency they have pinpointed a number of new issues they are keen to promote, including the development of closer ties with North Africa and other Mediterranean countries, and co-ordination of the fight against drugs trafficking and other organised crime.

Even from a political viewpoint, things could be worse. Mr Dini is a rigorous-minded prime minister who commands broad respect at home and abroad. To compensate for Mrs Agnelli's shortcomings, there is talk of a creating an ad hoc junior foreign minister to guide Italy through the presidency as smoothly as possible.

Nevertheless, the next six months are unlikely to be entirely comfortable, either for Italy or for Europe as a whole. "It will be a weak and undramatic presidency," predicts one EU diplomat in Rome. "All the Italians want to do is keep the show on the road and give the impression of competent management."

That means in particular no controversial attempts to delay or rework the terms of monetary union, as the more sceptical members such as Britain - but also Italy itself - would like. Too weak to swing the agenda its own way, Italy will thus do its best to win favours from Germany by being a good boy.

The government would also like to use the presidency to make some important domestic advances, such as putting the lira back in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, slashing its public debt still further, and tightening borders in accordance with the Schengen agreement that it has initialled but not yet joined. Whether such goals are realistic depends on the sempiternal Italian Question: can the country keep its politics in order and get on with the business of government? It would take a brave person to predict an answer to that.