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Finding New Friends in Europe

By Tom Arbuthnott, Tom Arbuthnott. Source: BCC Online

Tom Arbuthnott analyses the Blair-Berlusconi relationship.

The declaration issued by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi following their first bilateral meeting calls for the next European Union summit to represent "a new milestone" in achieving a genuine structural reform of the European economy. Among other things, it calls for greater flexibility of labour markets and for some of the more Byzantine national markets, notably in the energy sector, to be opened up to competition. This marks what has been described as a "nascent axis" or a "multiform partnership" between Britain and Italy, with the enthusiastic support of the Spanish centre-right government. However ugly the phrasing, the intention is clear: to provide a business-friendly alternative to the traditional Franco-German drivers of European strategy.

Get-out clause

The Anglo-Italian pact is undoubtedly very convenient for Mr Blair. Last summer, in Sao Paolo, he named next month's Barcelona summit as "make or break time for the European economy". These words could come back to haunt him, especially if, in a year of French and German elections, little progress is made at Barcelona. The establishment of a new axis may allow Mr Blair to claim, after the summit, that any failures were down to electoral cycles, and that he has used the time constructively in building up a real momentum behind economic reform.

Britain, Italy and Spain can be shown to be marching forward to the economic reform summit in Greece next year under the same banner, hauling those Gallic and Teutonic stick-in-the-muds behind them. So, the pact is useful, and it does rest on a common economic agenda. But can the Anglo-Italian partnership really emulate the standards set by the Franco-German engine in setting a new tone for European integration?

Shifting sands

In some areas, the portents are not good. Britain and Italy have diverged on a number of important issues since Berlusconi came to power last May. On the reform of Common Agricultural Policy, a key point for the Brits, Italy has shifted from a very pro-reform position to a more conservative one. On anti-terrorist measures, the core growth area in European competence since the 11 September attacks, Italy resisted to the last the European arrest warrant, and, in true Italian style, may well take a while to implement the measure. Britain, on the other hand, announced this week in a rash of enthusiasm that it would implement the arrest warrant a year early, coming into effect in January 2003.

Even where a common purpose has been identified between Blair and Berlusconi, on developing a non-federal future for Europe for example, it has to be doubted how far the Berlusconi government can be trusted to deliver on its commitments.

Italian affections

Berlusconi himself is rather unreliable. His political appeal is based on his image as "the cavalier", or the prime minister "with the sun in his pocket". When things go wrong, he has a history of absolving himself of responsibility by blaming external factors, usually from abroad. If things get harder for Mr Berlusconi, international commitments may be the last thing on his mind. Italy's new euroscepticism has to be seen in this light.

It is all very well for Berlusconi to strike a politically convenient pose "in defence of the nation state." But this stance has lasted three months, in contrast to a 50-year history of a unified political class backing any European initiative unreservedly.

While the Italian state has improved since the bribe scandals of the early 1990s, many Italians still prefer to see it operating within the structures established by Brussels. Whatever Berlusconi may say about developing a Europe that maintains Italy's integrity, his domestic audience is far less convinced of this than Blair's. And Berlusconi is more likely than most to change his tune.

De Gaulle once famously described the Franco-German axis as "a marriage of convenience with a considerable amount of feeling". For an Anglo-Italian axis, the convenience is certainly there. But the feeling?