Prodi Goes Off Berlusconi-Hunting

The new European Commission started work today – finally. They were supposed to start work on November 1, but got held up by one Rocco Buttiglioni, the Italian Commission candidate who was supposed to get the Justice and Home Affairs portfolio. In nomination hearings before a European Parliament committee, Buttiglione was not shy in setting forth his personal value-system in which homosexuals are sinners and women encouraged to stay home and care for the children. Those sorts of sentiments just won’t do for the EU of the 21st century, to the extent that if the Parliament had no other choice but to reject the entire new Commission proposed by Commission President Jose Manual Barroso in order to keep Buttiglione from taking his place within it – and, the way the EU’s rules now stand, it didn’t – then fine, they were willing to reject the entire new Commission. Barroso pulled back from this brink and managed to get rid of Buttiglioni and find another Italian much more to everyone’s liking.

The new token Italian – but Italians, don’t get offended: every one of the 25 member-states gets a “token” of its own on the Commission – turned out to be a very safe choice, namely Franco Frattini, or the Italian government official who is supposed to be most congenial to foreigners, that is, the foreign minister.

No problem there; except that Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi then named to replace Frattini one Gianfranco Fini, a definite big-shot in the current government coalition and even a vice-premier – but also head of Italy’s National Alliance party, a party of the right to the degree that many have called it (and him) fascist in the past, and many still do. This is supposed to be the new government official most congenial to foreigners? There is rich material here for a future weblog entry – should I (or someone else) choose to accept the mission.

(But there is also good material to be mined from the European Commission’s latest trouble – and just as it was trying to get down to work! There had already been scarcely-muffled disappointment over the French “token” to the Commission, Jacques Barrot, both over this politician’s disturbing mediocrity – when France has so many more brilliant officials it could offer! – and the correspondingly mediocre portfolio he was assigned to, that of Transportation. Now it seems that M. Barrot was convicted as recently as 2000 for a crime having to do with illegal political party fundraising. He received a suspended sentence of jail time, but did not even have to worry about that, as he got a pardon from French President Jacques Chirac (and it’s easy to guess just whose party it was he was illegally raising funds for). Under French law, that means the whole messy incident was erased from his record, and so maybe he thought that that gave him an excuse not to bring it up when his background and qualifications were under review by the European Parliament to gauge his suitability for the Transport Commissioner post.

But he had another think coming, and now the truth is out, and the predictable calls for his resignation are ringing out from the halls of Parliament. To me, though, the neat aspect of this affair (and The Independent covers it well) is that that inconvenient fact out of M. Barrot’s past was actually dug up and revealed by a certain Nigel Farage, representative to the EP for the United Kingdom Independence Party. That’s the party that believes the UK should simply withdraw from the EU, you might remember. One of the (few) things that has continued to fascinate me about the European Parliament is the presence within its assembled ranks of representatives from political parties who are on record as disbelieving in the entire EU (and these come from not just the UK, but also from Poland and Denmark and the Czech Republic – the Communists – and also, I believe, Sweden) – so that you wonder, well, why are you all sitting there in the first place, as members of an institution whose usefulness and in most cases even legitimacy you deny? Here apparently is Mr. Farage’s answer, and it’s a delightful one: I’m making trouble, that’s what I’m doing here, and what’s more I’m doing so in the unique British tradition of gutter press and paparazzi, unearthing dirty laundry from celebrity pasts and hanging it out for all to see! Aren’t those unscrupulous reporters and editors at publications like the News of the World all named “Nigel,” anyway? This is also very prime grist for the €S mill; what do the MEPs of the similarly anti-EU Danish People’s Party do, then, go around rampaging in horned helmets? Looks like I’ve made a healthy start on the subject here, but it perhaps deserves further amplification in the future if I can come up with more interesting material along this line.)


But to get the true subject of this post: The new EU Commission today finally got down to work, meaning that the old EU Commission – that majority of commissioners who weren’t held over into the new – had to go off to pursue other opportunities. It’s unlikely that any of them will be perusing the want ads anytime soon, of course; but old Commission President Romano Prodi has a particularly interesting follow-on job for himself arranged, and Pauline Valkenet of the Dutch newspaper Trouw writes about that today (Prodi Ready for Conflict with Berlusconi).

Yes, Prodi may happen to be 65 years of age, but retirement is definitely not on his mind. What is, rather, is saving his own country from Silvio Berlusconi and his right-wing government. Although he came into office as Commission President five years ago with high hopes, he is leaving the post generally considered not to have been among the best that have served. (Although he was certainly better than his predecessor, the Luxembourgian Jacques Santer, who resigned along with his entire Commission back in 1999 before even coming to the end of his term.) Interestingly, though, Ms. Valkenet’s article nonetheless depicts him as nothing less than the Italian left wing’s long-awaited political savior. Without him, Italy would be in for a spell of Berlusconi and cronies for a long, long time; with him, specifically with Prodi at the head of the Left’s candidate-list for the upcoming 2006 Italian general election, there’s a chance to unseat Berlusconi.


How can that be? Prodi’s after all just a Commission President whom everyone is glad to see go; isn’t there anyone else to take up the Left’s standard? Not really. As Valkenet describes things, Italian politics has transformed from its traditional fractiousness to a situation where, while there still are a lot of little individual political parties out there, they have now taken to banding together into big blocs so as to maximize their collective ability to win political power. Berlusconi’s bloc, currently in government, is called the “House of Liberties” (Casa delle Libertà) and is composed of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the aforementioned post-fascist National Alliance of Gianfranco Fini, the Northern League separatist party of Umberto Bossi, and some smaller parties. In response the Left has formed up into its Grand Democratic Alliance (Grande Alleanza Democratica) bloc.

The tension that comes with such arrangements is that, apparently, many small parties is a structure that comes naturally to Italian politics because there are so many points-of-view and people holding them willing to form political parties to advance them. It’s hard to group these together in blocs in any sort of permanent way. Even on the Right, in the coalition that is currently governing the country, obvious contradictions in the stances of the parties making up the Casa delle Libertà are apparent; for instance, the greater autonomy for Italy’s northern regions (even secession, at one time) that the Northern League advocates doesn’t sit well with the vision of a grand, united Italy that is central to the philosophies of both the National Alliance and Forza Italia. And naturally the Grande Alleanza Democratica (GAD) can’t escape this same problem. As Valkenet writes in her article, polls show that the GAD has a chance of winning power if it includes under its umbrella the Rifondazione Comunista party, and that it doesn’t have that chance if it doesn’t – so it includes Rifondazione Comunista, and holds its nose. Yes, that’s the peculiar – but still popular – Italian party that still calls itself Communist; check out its website (but it’s only in Italian) and you’ll find plenty of red and hammers-and-sickles like in the days of old. (Note that the bulk of what used to be the Italian Communist Party metamorphosed in the early 90s into the so-called Democratic Left, a social-democrat party in the more familiar mode.)

Whatever Romano Prodi’s strengths and weaknesses as a vote-getter, he’s apparently a very good conciliator, and that’s what the GAD needs nowadays to keep all the other leading luminaries on the Italian Left from indulging in their petty squabbles with each other and get them ready to go into the lists against the Casa delle Libertà in 2006 instead. And after all, he’s gotten all the Left’s noses pointing in the right direction and led them to victory before; that was in 1996, when he beat Berlsconi and indeed had two years as Italian prime minister.


Can he do it again? On the one hand, the current Italian government is closely identified with the Bush administration, and in particular with the War in Iraq; there are still Italians serving in the occupation, and sundry Italians getting kidnapped and even occasionally beheaded. That’s a stance which, in common with every other European nation (yes, including Poland) is definitely contrary to what the majority of the native population wants. On the other hand, it can be hard to win an election when the opposition is not only in power but also owns most of the television stations in what turns out to be a TV-mad society. That’s the sort of country where the government can get laws passed conferring immunity on the prime minister for any criminal deeds he might have perpetrated in the past. (Things are much better in the US – there, political leaders can continue serving after they are indicted for a crime, but presumably have to be gone when they are actually eventually convicted – oh, and when the appeals process has run its course.) For those interested, the historian Paul Ginsborg has a very readable treatment of just what has come to pass in contemporary Italy, i.e. of the challenge Prodi and his GAD face, in Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power, and Patrimony.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Comments are closed.