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Europe

Does Italy Want the Boot?

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder travels to Italy Friday amid European fears that Italian politics has gone wacky. But there was never much indication that it was normal.

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Oh, it's only a little nationalism

The appearance of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi alongside a political ally who last weekend denounced the European Union as "the new fascism" has given the jitters to pro-EU politicians across the continent.

If Italy were to turn on the EU it would spell disaster for the union. Though Berlusconi is a self-proclaimed Europhile, his actions suggest otherwise. "Europhobia" might be too strong a word, but "self-interest", critics say, is not.

So it’s important to distinguish bluster from reality.

The EU prides itself on a triumph over Europe’s long history of division and nationalism, and ‘Eurocrats’ in Brussels expect national governments to fall into line by at least minding their manners, staying calm.

Democracy, the human condition

Part of the trouble, though, is that Italian government is rarely mannerly and even less calm. If democracy to the EU is an ideal and a means of stability, d emocrazia to the Italians is the human condition, a constant fight that has made Berlusconi’s government Italy’s fifty-seventh since the Second World War.

So are there signs that the prime minister – who also happens to be one of the world’s richest men, Italy’s richest man, top media and financial magnate – wants to pick a fight? Yes.

And as a member of the EU since its inception, could Italy now want the boot?

No.

Viva la differenza

In the last year, the outspoken Berlusconi has stretched his creativity to outrage the concertedly even-tempered EU in new ways.

Schiefer Turm von Pisa

Pisa's leaning tower

He's said Finland should not be home to the European Food Agency because "Finns don’t even know what prosciutto is", and remarked after September 11 on the "superiority" of Christian civilisation. But those were culture clashes with Brussels and other national premiers, nothing more.

Policy differences are more important, and Berlusconi has offered those, too.

Italy has held out to the last minute before caving in and supporting European police agreements – first in December over EU-wide arrest warrants, then last week over a plan allowing judges to freeze assets of suspected criminals across the EU.

He has also joined Britain’s Tony Blair in aiming to block future employment legislation from Brussels and teamed up with Germany and Spain to blockade EU plans to promise more aid for poor countries. All deliberate action against the union’s emerging federal role.

EU enlargement is also under attack by Berlusconi, though not particularly viciously. The process on which the union has dramatically staked its future should not be completed until the EU does something to help unplug traffic along Italy’s northern border. Routes to France, Switzerland and Austria are jammed, slowing the 60 percent of Italian freight that leaves Italy over the Alps, according to a Financial Times report.

Tapping populist nationalism

Behind Berlusconi’s actions – especially his decision to defend as "colourful" the virulently anti-EU comments of his ally, Reform Minister Umberto Bossi – are the pressures of domestic politics.

Protest gegen Berlusconi wächst

An unidentified protester wears a Pinocchio nose on his way to St. John in Lateran Square for a protest against Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi's government in Rome, Saturday March 2, 2002. The Pinocchio nose worn by demonstrators alludes to their criticism of Berlusconi not keeping his promises.

But it is far from clear that the Italian electorate robustly backs Berlusconi’s new Euro-scepticism.

Over 100,000 Italians of the centre-left took to the streets last weekend protesting against their prime minister, many accusing him of conflicts of interest because of his giant media and financial empires.

As the majority owner of Mediaset, Berlusconi controls the country’s three largest private television stations. Include that with his government’s control of the national network RAI, and he controls 90 percent of national television.

Populism, Berlusconi is finding out, has two sides. And his opponents on the left are seething with new energy, following last week’s parliamentary decision not to challenge his dual identities as media king and political leader.

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