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EU: Italy's Right Fears Austria-Like Dilemma

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Belgium's outspoken Foreign Minister Louis Michel is taking aim at Italy's far-right political parties. Michel, who played a leading role in the European Union's diplomatic isolation of Austria last year, says Italy should be similarly punished if national elections in May bring to power a right-wing coalition that includes those he calls "fascist." Michel's stand has angered Italian politicians, who accuse him of interference in Italy's internal affairs.

Prague, 6 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Louis Michel, who is a socialist, says the EU cannot simply "look on" as what he calls "extreme right" parties move into government in Italy.

The Belgian foreign minister has labeled as "fascist" the head of the Italian Northern League, Umberto Bossi, who wants a fence built along Italy's eastern border with Slovenia to stop illegal immigration. Bossi, never one to avoid an argument, has hit back at Michel, calling him a "Red Nazi."

Apart from Bossi, Michel is also concerned about Gianfranco Fini and his National Alliance. Fini's party traces its roots back to the fascists of dictator Benito Mussolini, who controlled Italy from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Both Bossi and Fini are campaigning alongside media magnate Silvio Berlusconi of the center-right Forza Italia party. Opinion polls give this right-wing constellation, dominated by Berlusconi, a strong lead over the ruling center-left coalition.

Those polls are the source of Michel's concern. In his latest remarks, published in a Vienna weekly ("Profil" March 5), he says he wants the EU to use its new "early warning" system on Italy immediately.

The system -- agreed upon in December at the EU's Nice summit -- allows the EU to give advance warning to a member-state of potential retribution when a "clear danger" exists of it committing "a serious breach of human rights."

At least 12 of the 15 EU members would have to be convinced that human rights are about to be breached in Italy before a warning could be issued. That could be followed by sanctions, if they were seen as justified.

The mechanism was developed in the wake of last year's difficulties with Austria, an EU member since 1995. Austria's 14 EU partners imposed sanctions soon after Joerg Haider's right-wing Freedom Party entered a governing coalition in February last year. But the sanctions were withdrawn amid some embarrassment the following September after an official report by a panel of experts concluded they were largely unjustified.

The new early-warning system is intended to provide a framework for a measured response to a situation where a member is seen as in danger of infringing the EU's democratic values and culture. It includes provisions for dialogue and consultation with the affected party.

Italian politicians, however, have called Michel's stand an infringement of Italy's sovereignty, with Forza Italia leaders dismissing it as ridiculous. And other EU member-states have so far refrained from backing Michel.

Some independent political analysts also believe Michel is acting prematurely. London-based Steven Everts of the Center for European Reform says many feel that last year's action against Austria was a mistake, with sanctions coming into force before any actual Austrian wrongdoing. Similarly, Everts says, it would be too soon to act against Italy now.

"First, let's wait and see what the election outcome [in Italy] is going to be. Then let's wait and see what kind of government there will be. Then let's wait and see if there is indeed a right-wing government -- which I agree is more likely than not. Then let's hold them to account if and when they take certain actions or pass certain laws or make certain statements. Only at that point do I think it is good to come up with various EU responses." Analyst Nicholas Whyte of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels says Michel will probably find himself isolated within the EU and that his expressions of concern may even prove counterproductive among Italians.

"I think it is premature [to move now], and to me it is quite clear from the Balkan experience that people do not like it when they are told which way to vote."

But Everts sees what he calls the process of "soul-searching" among EU members about basic democratic issues as sending the right signal to the central and east European candidate members. During the slow membership negotiation process, it has often seemed to the Easterners that they were being made to live up to higher standards than those imposed on present EU members. Everts says:

"It is good and proper that if the EU upholds certain standards of democratic behavior, then it is right that these standards should be applied not only to applicant countries -- in the sense that there has been a sort of assumption that it was incumbent upon the European Commission to check whether the democratic systems of the applicant countries were adequate -- while current EU member states would not be subjected to this same test."

While Whyte is skeptical about the Belgian minister's initiative, he applauds the "post-Austria" mechanism which the EU is developing to ensure the democratic credentials of member states. "There is an issue of principle here -- that the EU was founded as a union of democracies and there has to be some mechanism by which democracies, having signed up to live together under a particular contract, [have] then to honor their treaty obligations, they have to maintain their democratic form of government."

With the Italian election expected sometime in the first two weeks of May, the coming months will show if the EU's new pro-democracy mechanisms will actually be put to use.