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Italy After Ruggiero

By Tom Arbuthnott. Source: BBCi

Tom Arbuthnott looks at what is likely to happen in the Italian government now that the well repected foreign minister Renato Ruggiero has resigned.

Thursday, 10 January, 2002

It was never going to be easy for Silvio Berlusconi.

Even before his election as Italian prime minister in May, his coalition was condemned as a marriage of convenience between separatists, post-fascists and pragmatists.

The same three-party combination lasted all of seven months during its last outing in 1994, before Umberto Bossi - dishevelled leader of the separatist Northern League - turned violently on his coalition partner and the government fell.

The one thing that reassured the international community this time round was the presence of a trusted, reasonable figure in the Farnesina, the Italian Foreign Ministry.

Surely Renato Ruggiero, the widely respected former head of the World Trade Organisation, would restrain the more extremist instincts of the Berlusconi government? At least there would be one man to do business with inside the Council of Ministers.

Ruggiero resigned on 4 January, after a long running contretemps with other members of the government over Italy's traditionally supportive policy on Europe - what Bossi called the "great powers" policy.

Warning bells

Throughout Europe alarm bells have been ringing. Without Ruggiero, what kind of partner will the new Italian Government be within the structures of the European Union?

The one thing that can safely be said about the Italian Government's conduct of EU policy over the next months is that it will be unpredictable.

Berlusconi's major actions within the European arena have already shown uncharacteristic, and rather whimsical, Italian intransigence.

Since acceding to power, he has delayed agreement of the European arrest warrant for seemingly trivial reasons - some suggested he personally feared arrested under the new conditions - and has denied Helsinki the European Food Authority on the grounds that Finns know nothing about prosciutto.

Without Ruggiero's moderating presence in the Farnesina, we can expect more of the same to come.

This is particularly sensitive given the importance of some of the decisions facing Europe over the next two years.

Once normal business is allowed to resume - after the French and German elections this year, and once the second Irish referendum on Nice is safely negotiated - the EU will have to deal with its plans for enlargement.

Challenges ahead

Deals will have to be made on the Common Agricultural Policy and the distribution of structural and cohesion funds in a larger Europe.

And Italy, with the presidency of the EU in the second half of 2003, bears much responsibility for finessing these deals, so that enlargement happens smoothly and on schedule before the European Parliament elections in 2004.

Even if Berlusconi had not taken on the foreign minister's portfolio, he would have had a difficult job on his hands reconciling the competing interests of his coalition partners, and forging a united policy on the EU.

Bossi's separatist rhetoric is often anti-EU, and members of Gianfranco Fini's post-fascist party have been known to protest long and hard about the rights of the Italian minority in pre-accession Slovenia.

It was an impossible task for Ruggiero, and will be no easier for Mr Berlusconi, burdened as he is with countless other affairs of state, and his personal business empire.

Expect the unexpected.

Tom Arbuthnott runs the European programme at the Foreign Policy Centre