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EU: Italy's Presidency Seen Resting On Shoulders Of One Man

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Italy today assumes the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union. Observers say the success or failure of Italy's presidency may ultimately rest on one man: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Brussels, 1 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- References to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's volatile temperament, controversial business dealings, and stern leadership style feature on the editorial pages of many European newspapers today.

Consequently, expectations for the success of Italy's six-month presidency of the European Union -- which starts today -- are limited.

Italy takes over from Greece, whose leadership the past six months is generally judged to have been positive under difficult circumstances.

Pat Cox, the president of the European Parliament, could afford to be sincere in the praise he lavished upon Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis today in Strasbourg. "The Greek presidency has established, yet again, the capacity for effective leadership on the part of a smaller state in the [European] Union. The enlargement reached its high point of definition with the signing ceremony of the Accession Treaty in Rome and so, represented an act of consolidation and continuity and in these recent months, we've been greatly encouraged by the positive referenda results in seven of the accession states," Cox said.

Cox said the Greek presidency had even managed to turn the highly divisive Iraq crisis partly to the EU's advantage. "I think the work, which has begun under the [Greek] presidency, to focus on a more coherent foreign-policy doctrine and definition, is a very positive leadership response to Europe's Iraqi crisis, which was not a crisis fomented by the Greek presidency, but one where a cool head assisted in overcoming its worst dimensions," he said.

Much of the success of Italy's presidency rests on Italy's highly controversial, media-mogul prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. It's unclear yet whether he will be able to control his independent personal style to fashion common EU positions inside and outside of the union.

On a recent trip to the Middle East, for example, Berlusconi departed from standard EU practice by snubbing Yasser Arafat. When criticized for the lapse by France, Berlusconi suggested that French President Jacques Chirac had missed a "good chance to keep quiet." Chirac memorably used the same phrase a few months ago to chide Eastern European candidate countries for siding with the United States on Iraq.

Berlusconi also has a history of well-publicized run-ins with the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi. A fellow Italian, Prodi is also a domestic political opponent and a strong critic of Berlusconi's hold on the Italian media. In turn, Berlusconi has criticized Prodi for his role in murky privatization dealings in the 1980s.

Prodi today chose to downplay his differences with Berlusconi. "I simply think that it will be a cooperative presence. We should work together. There is no problem. Institutions are institutions and we know how to handle these problems when they appear and I hope and I think that the Italian presidency will be as successful as the Greek one," Prodi said.

Berlusconi -- it should be said -- enjoys a good relationship with U.S. President George W. Bush and may help the EU bridge the trans-Atlantic divide.

Italy's impact on such key EU policy areas as economic and constitutional reforms or enlargement is likely to be negligible. Economic growth, although urgently needed, is something the bloc traditionally addresses during its spring presidency.

Although an intergovernmental conference will be launched in October to allow EU member states to discuss the results of the work of the Convention on the Future of Europe, its decisive debates will take place only in March next year. Italy is not considered a key player in the constitutional debate.

On enlargement, Italy is likely to continue the Greek drive for closer ties with the western Balkan countries. However, little movement is expected on this front until the EU's current budget runs out in 2006. Croatia, which has already lodged an application for membership, is said by EU officials to have something of a chance to join the bloc together with Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, but a key European Commission assessment of the application will only emerge sometime next spring.

Where Italy does stand a chance of making a difference is on immigration and asylum policy. Both have in recent years increasingly moved to the top of the EU agenda, and Italy is a frontier state. Berlusconi has already indicated his government will prioritize the issue, and has said it is considering launching a "pilot" joint border-control venture in Libya.

The damage any presidency can do to the EU is inherently limited. It bears noting that no one fears the Italian presidency could roll back progress already achieved. The remit of any presidency is limited to generating consensus, hence the most obvious way for it to fail is to be unable to move urgent EU business forward.

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