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EU: Italian Rightist Hits Sour Note In Urging Resistance To 'Corrupt' Union

Italy's rightist Northern League leader, Umberto Bossi, has struck another blow at the European Union, one which is still reverberating. At his party congress in early March, he issued what appeared to be a call for revolt, urging fellow Italians to civil resistance against the "corrupt" European superstate. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was present, dismissed the remarks by his coalition partner Bossi as "not a problem." Are Italy's close relations with the EU over the past 40 years beginning to unravel?

Prague, 7 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It's hard not to imagine the scene as an opera by Verdi. The place: the party congress of Italy's rightist Northern League. The occasion: a fresh attack on the European Union by Umberto Bossi, head of the League. At center stage, in the rough traditional garments of a Lombardy landsman, stands Bossi. Wild-eyed and drawn up to his full height, he implores his countrymen in a rich baritone to resist the corrupt foreign superstate which refuses to acknowledge Italy's sovereignty.

Off to the right, dressed as a prince, is a smooth-faced Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister. Addressing his courtiers in jocular tones, he croons, "You all know Umberto's colorful language -- it's not a problem."

The courtiers take up the refrain. "Non e un problema," they sing. "Non e un problema."

But what if it is a problem? Bossi's savage and repeated attacks on the European Union are threatening to undermine Italy's position as probably the most steadfast founding member of the union for over 40 years. Bossi, an anti-immigrant populist, is no outsider: He is a minister in Berlusconi's government. The premier, a multimillionaire businessman, while always distancing himself from Bossi's outbursts, nevertheless stays personally close to him.

Berlusconi does not need Bossi's party to stay in power -- he has the votes even if the Liga Nord withdraws from the coalition. So what game is being played? Does Berlusconi agree with Bossi's assessment of the EU but simply not want to say so himself? The Berlin correspondent for the leading Italian daily "Corriere della Sera," Paolo Valentino, views the matter in less sinister terms. He sees the prime minister as inexperienced, and possibly naive, in foreign affairs.

"As far as European policy is concerned, what is true is that Berlusconi has no big ideas about Europe," Valentino says. "Actually, I don't think he has any ideas about Europe -- I mean, it is not something he has at heart, and besides he has no experience in foreign policy."

Berlusconi has never clearly enunciated his policy on Europe, but has left people like Bossi to make the running commentary. Valentino thinks the prime minister is soon going to learn a lesson that this strategy will not do. He continues: "European politics is made up 80 percent of announcements, and if the announcements are those of Mr. Bossi, then there is no future for Italy, and there is no possibility in the future for Italy to play any kind of role in Europe, because even if no major damage will be done to European integration, big damage will be done to the capacity and ability of Italy to influence European affairs."

The damage is being done, that's certain. One of the leading critics of the Italian developments is Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, who has clashed publicly with Bossi before. Michel was a key figure in the imposition of sanctions by EU countries on Austria when the rightist Freedom Party joined the present ruling coalition in Vienna.

Michel's spokesman, Olivier Alsteens, indicates that the Belgian foreign minister is monitoring events in Italy closely. He says Michel is in regular contact with Renato Ruggiero, the pro-EU politician who resigned as Berlusconi's foreign minister in protest two months ago. Ruggiero has expressed "deep worry" over Bossi's latest outburst.

Alsteens will not say if Michel is planning any formal moves against the Italian government. "You know that he [Michel] has contacts with his [EU] colleagues, but I cannot answer as to precisely what action can be taken or will be taken by Louis Michel," Alsteens says.

Analysts tend to think that the EU partners will not try to impose sanctions on Italy, as they did with Austria. Steven Everts of the Centre for European Reform in London says the move against Austria is now judged to have been hasty and badly thought out, in that no clear objectives were served.

"Most people regard the Austrian episode as a mistake, and I think very few people will want to repeat it. So we will have to see how Italy continues," Everts says. "The litmus test will be Italian behavior in the EU, in the various councils."

Correspondent Valentino also does not see EU sanctions as imminent. He says the EU partners have adopted another tactic.

"I think that the line is, 'Forget Italy for the time being.' No one is willing to go with something like [the sanctions on] Austria -- you cannot do it in Italy, you cannot do it with one of the big countries. But at the same time, there is a sort of quiet understanding that on the main points the EU just goes ahead without Italy. If Italy follows up, that's fine. If not, that is Italy's problem," Valentino says.

Valentino says Berlusconi must be careful about a backlash from the Italian public against Bossi's statements, given Italy's long and unquestioned loyalty to the Union.

Michel's spokesman Alsteens takes up this same point: "The Italian people, firstly, are always pro-European. The Italian economy is also living a lot from the European Union, nobody can forget that. So people in Italy are pro-European, and thus the problem [for the EU partners] is you can try to find some way to oppose the speeches of Mr. Bossi, but you must not harm the Italian people, because they are not responsible for that."

In Rome, concern is reported to be spreading in political circles over Bossi's latest outburst. Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi called meetings with Berlusconi and his ministers to discuss the direction in which the country is headed.