Domestic chaos as Italy takes EU presidency


FIVE years ago when Italy last assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union, the Economist magazine cruelly likened its stewardship of the EU to a holiday bus being driven by the Marx Brothers. That jibe was based on the criticism that Italian concern with a confused domestic political scene greatly distracted attention from the EU business at hand.

Five years later, the domestic confusion is, if anything, even greater - bad enough to have the Marx brothers at the wheel of the European bus, but even worse to have no one whomsoever. The Italian government which yesterday assumed the EU presidency is not only a non-elected "technical" government but may very shortly he a non-government since the prime minister, Mr Lamberto Dini, handed in his resignation last Saturday and now awaits his fate in a parliamentary debate due next week.

While at first glance, the current political confusion would appear to bode ill for the Italian presidency, two factors suggest that, on the night, Italy will get its European act together.

Firstly, there is the real possibility that next week's parliamentary debate will see Mr Dini reinstated, thus affording political continuity for the duration of the presidency.

Secondly, there is the consideration that the small band of Italian bureaucrats responsible for the daily administration of European business are not only highly experienced "Eurocrats" but have also long ago learned to co-habit successfully with a turbulent, domestic political climate, a point underlined by one senior foreign ministry official who recently told The Irish Times:

"No matter what government there is during the presidency, it will be a good, substantial presidency. Italy feels very strongly about the European programme and about European integration."

By offering his resignation on Saturday, the former Bank of Italy director, Mr Dini, was maintaining a commitment made three months ago to hand in his government mandate as soon as the 1996 Finance Bill had been ratified. Despite the limited nature of a government programme that concentrated on fiscal rectitude and the re-establishment of Italian credibility, especially on monetary markets, Mr Dini's year in office has proved a surprising success.

President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and the German Chancellor, Dr Kohl, are just two important figures who have made no secret of their desire to see Mr Dini stay at his post during the EU presidency.

Whereas one year ago, on the resignation of Mr Berlusconi, President Scalfaro opted to resolve the crisis himself by appointing Mr Dini, this time he has played the hall into parliament's court by refusing to accept Mr Dini's resignation.

In so doing, the Italian president has taken a calculated gamble, apparently in the belief that, in the end, both the centre-right and the centre-left will shy away from an immediate election and resolve their dilemma by re-instating Mr Dini, if only for the six months of the EU presidency.

While the politicians humble, Italian Eurocrats have already identified the priorities for the EU presidency. The Intergovernmental Conference, due to open in Turin in March, will formally begin the lengthy process of reassessing both EU institutions and EU aspirations towards political as well as economic integration.