Italy

I take it that everyone has seen the insulting picture on the cover of the February 22 edition of Focus, a lightweight German news magazine?  Under the headline ”Swindlers in the euro family”, it shows the Venus de Milo statue, a monument of ancient Greek civilisation, sticking up a middle finger at Germany.  In this way the magazine’s editors convey, as offensively as possible, the idea that debt-ridden Greece is robbing Germany blind by forcing it to come to Greece’s financial rescue.

The Greek response has been predictably furious.  The Greek consumers’ federation has called for a boycott of German goods, commenting that Greeks were creating timeless works of art like the Venus de Milo at a time when Germans were “eating bananas in the trees”. Read more

Nothing illustrates the sensitivity of the European Union’s relationship with Israel better than the statement which EU foreign ministers issued on Monday complaining about the use of forged European passports in last month’s killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas commander, in Dubai.  The statement contained several sentences that were masterpieces of waffle, such as the following: “The EU … believes that its passports remain among the most secure in the world, fully meeting all international standards.”

The statement was, however, remarkable chiefly for its reluctance to spell out that the EU holds Israel responsible for the flagrant misuse of identity documents belonging to European citizens.  It could hardly be otherwise, of course.  There is insufficient evidence at this stage to state with certainty that Israel’s agents used the false passports and killed Mabhouh.  Instead, it was left to a couple of EU foreign ministers to conduct some finger-wagging in one-on-one meetings with Avigdor Lieberman, their combative Israeli counterpart, who just happened to be in Brussels on Monday. Read more

It passed largely unnoticed by the outside world, but perhaps the most intriguing event in European foreign policy last week was a visit paid to Belarus by Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi.  The European Union has kept Belarus at arm’s length for years because of the repressive domestic policies of President Alexander Lukashenko.  Berlusconi was the first western head of government to go to Minsk for well over a decade.

There was something surreal about the visit.  Lukashenko, once dubbed Europe’s last dictator, praised Berlusconi as “a global, planetary man of politics, our friend”.  Berlusconi responded: “Thank you, and thanks to your people who, I know, love you, as is demonstrated by the election results which everyone can see.”  One can only assume this was an example of Berlusconi’s famous sense of humour. Read more

I confess to a certain surprise at the way that Massimo D’Alema is climbing up the list of candidates for the post of European Union foreign policy chief.  At first sight the former Italian prime minister and foreign minister ticks far too few boxes to get the job.  But there are, in truth, some straightforward reasons for his ascent – none of which reflects well on the EU.

First, the unticked boxes.  1) His communist past.  This is usually condensed into: “He’s a former communist and therefore unacceptable to Poland and other EU countries, which suffered under Soviet domination while the Italian communist party was gorging itself on covert funds from Moscow.”  In fairness, D’Alema abandoned communism 20 years ago.  I spent five years in Rome covering Italian politics, and he never struck me as an extremist or a hardliner.  Quite the opposite: he was highly pragmatic, in a shifty kind of way. Read more

If you search for information about Garwolin on the internet, you will find that it is a simple but attractive little town in eastern Poland, about 50km east of Warsaw.  Yet 25 years ago, when I lived in Poland, Garwolin was the scene of a nasty confrontation between the forces of communist secularism and Roman Catholicism that has echoes in a landmark judgement last week by the European Court of Human Rights.

The Strasbourg-based court ruled that the display of crucifixes in Italian state school classrooms unlawfully restricted the right of parents to educate their children in accordance with their beliefs.  The seven judges contended that the presence of crucifixes could be “disturbing for pupils who practised other religions or were atheists”. Read more

September’s prize for Headline of the Month goes to the sub-editor with the dry sense of humour who put these words at the top of a story about Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister: “Berlusconi is Best Leader in Italy’s History, says Berlusconi.”

The story itself quotes Berlusconi as telling a news conference in Sardinia, where he was hosting talks with Spanish premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero: “I sincerely believe I am by far the best prime minister Italy has had in its 150-year history.”  So the headline, if not the sentiment behind it, cannot be faulted for lack of accuracy. Read more

The composition of the newly elected European Parliament, which holds its first session next week, will make many Britons hang their heads in shame.  For British politicians are either poorly represented, or not represented at all, in the 736-seat assembly’s three biggest political groups: the centre-right, centre and centre-left.  By contrast, Brits dominate the Eurosceptic and far-right fringes.

The loss of British influence in the parliament, which has a say in most European Union laws, will be substantial.  The likely damage to Britain’s reputation in Europe can only be guessed at. Read more

From a European Union perspective, it’s somewhat surprising that the extraordinary financial crisis we’ve been living through has not generated more pressure for another big push at EU integration – if not in the political sphere, then at least in the economic one.  According to conventional EU wisdom, it usually takes a crisis to make Europeans understand why closer integration is a good thing.  But on this occasion, it’s not happening – or at least, not yet.

For the perfect explanation as to why this should be so, I recommend an article by Otmar Issing, the European Central Bank’s former chief economist, in the latest issue of the journal Europe’s World.  Issing’s article discusses the merits of issuing common bonds for the 16-nation eurozone – an initiative that would, in theory, mark a major step forward in European integration – and comes down firmly against the proposal. Read more

To follow up on Monday’s blog, in which I suggested it was extremely unlikely that Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini would achieve his ambition of becoming the European Union’s next foreign policy chief, the obvious question is – well, who will get the job?

Three names keep cropping up.  One is Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a Dutchman who has served as Nato’s secretary-general since 2004 and who is about to be replaced by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister.  The second is Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, who is another ex-premier.  The third is Olli Rehn, a Finn who is the EU’s enlargement commissioner. Read more

There are two ways of looking at the imminent appointment of Jerzy Buzek, a former Polish prime minister, as the next president of the European Parliament.  The first way is to applaud Europe’s politicians for doing the right thing and giving one of the European Union’s top jobs to a man from one of the 10 former communist countries in central and eastern Europe that joined the EU in 2004-2007.  This is the highest honour yet accorded to a public figure from one of the EU’s new member-states.  Poles are justifiably proud.

The second way, however, is to be honest and recognise that the job of parliament president is about the lowest-ranking position someone could be given without its looking like an insult.  Buzek, who belongs to the legislature’s main centre-right group, won’t even hold the job for the assembly’s full five-year term: under a deal with the socialists, he will step down after two and a half years and hand over the reins to a socialist.  The fact is that, by giving this post to Buzek, older and bigger member-states in western Europe are making sure that they will get all the really big jobs when they come up for grabs later this year. Read more

It seems light years ago now, but I once had a delightful Swedish friend whose father, reflecting on his distinguished career in public service, told her that the proudest moment of his life was when Sweden switched from driving on the left side of the road to the right and there were no serious traffic accidents.

That was in 1967, and there’s no denying it – it’s damned impressive.  Imagine if they tried to introduce a change like that today in Britain, or in other countries that still drive on the left such as India, Japan, Pakistan or South Africa.  It would make the chaos on the opening day of Heathrow airport’s Terminal 5 look like a spot of trouble with the signalling on a model train set. Read more

Jan Fischer, the unassuming non-party technocrat who is holding the fort as Czech prime minister for the next few months, is getting his 15 minutes of fame on the world stage – but it’s certainly not going to his head.  He was sitting in his Prague office today telling me about his preparations for next week’s European Union summit in Brussels – an event he will chair – and somehow his background as a humble statistician kept colouring the conversation.

For example, when I asked him whether most EU heads of government supported a legally binding decision to nominate José Manuel Barroso at the summit for a second term as European Commission president, he replied that it was “50-50 … as regards the sample of people I’ve had a chance to speak to”. Read more

It’s quiz time, and here’s your starter for ten.  Which 18-year-old hottie home-breaker, as the European tabloid press is calling her, recently made the immortal statement:  “I want to be a showgirl.  But I’m also interested in politics.  I am flexible.”

Yes, it’s Noemi Letizia, the teenager at the centre of a divorce suit launched against 72-year-old Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi by his wife, Veronica Lario.  Reading the interview that young Noemi gave to the Corriere del Mezzogiorno newspaper (“I often sing with Papi Silvio at the piano, or we do karaoke”), it’s hard to know who to feel more sorry for – Lario, Noemi’s ex-fiancé Gino Flaminio, or the entire 60m Italian people. Read more

The use of “ethnic profiling” by European police forces dates back to well before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.  Since then, there is no doubt that the practice has become more widespread in Europe.  But in terms of preventing or solving crimes, how useful is it?

A study published today by the Open Society Justice Initiative, which campaigns for law reform and the protection of human rights, argues that ethnic profiling is “may be pervasive, but it is inefficient, ineffective and discriminatory… Ethnic profiling strikes at the heart of the social compact linking law enforcement institutions with the communities they serve.  It wastes police resources, discriminates against whole groups of people, and leaves everyone less safe.” Read more

The Czech hosts of Thursday’s European Union summit with six ex-Soviet states are not happy bunnies. The list of the EU leaders who couldn’t be bothered to show up for the Eastern Partnership event in Prague, a highlight of the Czechs’ six-month EU presidency, was embarrassingly long.

Let’s take them one by one. Read more

Among the various headaches keeping European Union leaders awake at night is the prospect of a thumping Conservative victory in the UK’s next general election, which must be held by June 2010. The fear is that the new Tory government would be so anti-EU that it would make the 1979-1997 governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major look like Jacques Delors’s European Commission in its heyday.

The nightmare inched one step closer on Wednesday when the Conservatives confirmed their intention of leaving the European People’s Party (EPP), the European Parliament’s main centre-right political group. This is a club with members from all over the 27-nation bloc. It is the largest group in the parliament, with about 37 per cent of the seats, and it will probably retain that position after June’s European Parliament elections. Read more

Anyone remember the Lisbon Strategy? This was a grand European Union programme, adopted almost exactly nine years ago, to turn the EU into “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy” in the world by 2010. It set a number of specific targets, such as average annual economic growth of 3 per cent and an overall employment participation rate of 70 per cent.

Given the crisis the world economy now faces, it would be cruel and gratuitous to mock the EU’s lofty ambitions of March 2000. Suffice it to say that a new report prepared by Allianz, the German insurer, and the Lisbon Council, a Brussels-based think-tank, says that Europe’s recession “is so severe that none of the countries surveyed can presently come up to the Lisbon goals”. Read more

The European Union’s much-touted €200bn fiscal stimulus package is looking more and more like one of those trick cigars I remember from years ago. A trick cigar looks like a cigar. It even feels like a cigar. But when you try to smoke it, nothing happens.

In the case of the EU’s fiscal stimulus – an initiative designed to pull Europe out of its deep recession, and approved by EU leaders at last week’s summit in Brussels – one gets the distinct feeling that someone somewhere is trying to pull wool over the general public’s eyes. The €200bn is there on paper, but there is not much evidence of it in the real world. Read more

What is the European Commission doing in the financial crisis? Commission president José Manuel Barroso answered that question last Friday in a speech that deserved rather more attention than it got.

After listing various initiatives the Commission is advancing on capital requirements, deposit guarantees, accountancy rules, credit ratings agencies, executive pay and cross-border financial supervision, Barroso delivered a remarkable message. Read more

To the 23 official languages of the European Union can be added a 24th – Silviospeak.
Yes, Berlusconi is back and once again turning heads and headlines across Europe.
The incoming Italian premier has yet to form a government but has already irked Brussels on two issues: his defence of lossmaking airline Alitalia and the nomination of a Italy’s European commissioner.
The billionaire businessman helped wreck talks to sell Alitalia to Air France/KLM by holding out the prospect of an Italian takeover. Now, if local businessmen do not stump up the cash, he could just nationalise it, he said on Tuesday.
He invented a new word – “zignare” – to describe the hectoring of the Commission, which is anxious to ensure that the airline does not receive any more government subsidies, disadvantaging its competitors.
“If they continue hectoring, we could take a decision in which Alitalia could be bought by the state – by the state railway,” Berlusconi told a news conference. “It’s a threat, not a decision.” Some suspect it may also be a joke since the railway lacks the resources to take on the airline.
Jacques Barrot, the EU transport commissioner, has expressed doubts over whether an emergency 300m government loan complied with state aid rules. The Commission on Tuesday said that nationalisation would not pose a problem as long as the state did not pay above market rates for the 50.1 per cent of Alitalia it did not own. Given the lack of private buyers a market rate could be difficult to gauge.
Italy gave Jose Manuel Barroso, Commission president, a further headache on Tuesday when Franco Frattini, its commissioner, asked for his leave of absence to be extended until May 15. He took time off to campaign with Berlusconi and is expected to become Rome’s foreign minister.
Barroso last week said that if he resigned Italy would lose the sensitive justice and home affairs post, which temporary fill-in Barrot would retain. The new Italian would take Barrot’s transport portfolio. Rocco Buttiglione, Berlusconi’s last pick, (cd xref to beeb or our story) had to withdraw in 2004 after offending the European parliament with remarks about homosexuality and the role of women.
Patience with Italy is strained in Brussels. After his time spent with Berlusconi, it might be wise for Frattini not to return.