Erosion of Italy's European tradition is a crying shame
03.02.2011 The actions of Italy's prime minister are a far cry from the good work done by some of his countrymen The gap between potential and reality was on stark display in Italy this week. In Milan, the great and good gathered at Bocconi University to remember Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, an Italian who served the European Union well, in many guises and over many years, and who died just before Christmas. Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Jean-Claude Trichet, the current president of the European Central Bank, and Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, were among those paying tribute. In thanking them for their tributes, Giorgio Napolitano, the president of Italy, observed that they were paying homage to Italy and the best of its people, to its cultural tradition and to its Europeanism. Even if Napolitano has to stay above party factionalism (and he must, given the fragility of Italy's political scene), his audience cannot have failed to observe that the country's current political leadership is not in the same tradition as Padoa-Schioppa. Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, is embroiled in lurid allegations that he paid prostitutes, including minors, to attend sex parties at his villa. He denies the charges, defying calls to step aside and let the president appoint a caretaker prime minister. Berlusconi last week phoned a TV chat-show to protest his innocence; meanwhile, newspapers publish transcripts of other telephone conversations, procured by phone-tapping of the prostitutes. None of this is really in the cultural tradition to which Napolitano alludes – but it fails on more than just on grounds of taste. One of the ironies of Berlusconi's present situation is that the Mediterranean region is now the focus of world attention. The uprising in Tunisia has been followed by a near-revolution in Egypt. Europe waits, unsure of how things will develop. In years gone by, and perhaps in years to come, Italy's partners in the EU would recognise that this part of the neighbourhood is one in which Italy has a special interest, where spheres of influence have overlapped for decades. But the current Italian government is now in such a mess that its influence on the Mediterranean is limited. In this policy area, as in so many others, Italy's voice barely registers. That is a crying shame, and the unfolding history of bunga-bunga parties at Berlusconi's villa is more than just titillation to be laughed about. Underneath, there are insidious developments that corrode what Napolitano would call Italy's European tradition. The European Union is, most importantly, rules-based. When the EU was founded – with Italy as one of the founding nations – it was as a rules-based organisation. One of the most disturbing aspects of Berlusconi's time in power is that he has weakened the rule of law (which was not, in any case, the strongest in Europe). The battles that he has fought over the decades with the public prosecutors in Milan are only a sideshow. The amnesties and the rule changes are arguably worse. One case with which European Voice is familiar, because it has been grinding on since before this newspaper began, is that of the lettori, the foreign lecturers at Italian universities. The discrimination against them has repeatedly been ruled illegal by the European Court of Justice, but those judgments were long ignored. Hundreds of cases were brought, claiming compensation. The Italian government has now passed a law, which took effect on 29 January, which sets out new rules for the lecturers' pay, but it also includes a dubious clause that retrospectively wipes away any pending claims. “From the date this present law comes into force, all pending court cases relating to these matters are extinguished.” Even by the standards of Berlusconi's government, this appears to be a particularly flagrant breach of EU law. Napolitano, in his oration at Bocconi, told his audience that once again what was expected of Italy was a contribution of passion, ideas, energy and political will to the European cause. Between the idea and the reality, as the poet once remarked, falls the shadow. In this case, the shadow is Berlusconi. The sooner he leaves the stage, the better for Europe. © 2011 European Voice. All rights reserved.