Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Every cloud – Italian reaction to the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty

Tough talk, characterised most often by the phrase ‘amarezza‘ (bitterness) from Italy’s leading politicians following the news of Ireland’s ‘no’ vote to the Lisbon treaty.

Ex President of the EU Commission Romano Prodi pulled no punches: “We can’t go on with the unanimous vote in a Union of 27 countries, and let’s stop saying that the provlems come from the new states that entered in 2004 with enlargement. The biggest problems have always come from the old members. From Great Britain and Ireland, which aside from anything else has had huge advanteges from its membership. […] I’m particularly pained that the no came from a people that more than any other has benefited from membership of the EU and has had high growth rates and economic assistance without parallel”[1].

Prodi’s tone was mirrored by the President of the Italian republic Giorgio Napolitano, who declared (flying in the face of the actual rules for ratifying the treaty) “you can’t think that the decision of little more than half of the electorate of a country that represents less than 1% of the population of the Union can halt the indispensable and at this stage impossible to delay , process of reform”[2].

Berlusconi has been understandably more circumspect in his reaction to the no vote, taking the opportunity to call on the heads of France, Germany and Britain to discuss how to surpass the crisis.

Because the truth of the matter is that, while officially the Italians – along with most other European countries – are reproaching the .5% of the EU electorate for their audacity, behind the scenes the no-vote opens up both opportunities and risks for Berlusconi’s government.

On the one hand the opportunities are clear. A show of support is, it would seem, needed to move the EU project forward, and Berlusconi’s government is more than willing to provide it. The price may be a softening of criticism from the EU towards Berlusconi’s policies.

Two* issues spring readily to mind. The first, his spending policy, threatens a worrying increase in Italy’s budget deficit. In the lifetime of his previous administration (from 2001-2006) Berlusconi’s finance ministers were repeatedly rebuked and threatened by Brussels for running a deficit. Fundamental to his government’s win in the last election was the promise of reduced taxes and various large-scale projects (the bridge over the straits of Messina, for example) – all of which put his government on a crash-course collision with the EU.

Second, but related, is the Alitalia crisis. A major election issue, Berlusconi personally intervened to help scupper a buyout deal from Air France to save the national airline. The cost of this has been various bridging loans from the Government to the airline, in defiance of EU competition regulations (at least according to competitors like British Airways and Ryanair).

Aside from negotiating over these issues, it may also provide an opportunity for the last of George Bush’s three main Iraq-war allies remaining in power to shape EU foreign policy. Indeed, Berlusconi’s immediate comment on the rejection of Lisbon was “Europe shouldn’t be a bureaucratic organisation. It should have though, a common foreign policy with a high profile”.

The opportunities are there to be grasped, but this new and uncertain phase of European politics, ushered in by the Irish no vote, also brings substantial risk for Berlusconi’s government. Risk because Italy has yet to ratify the treaty.

It’s highly unlikely that the Italian parliament would, should the process continue, fail to ratify the treaty – given that the opposition PD party are fully behind a yes vote. The mote in the eye, though, is the Lega Nord, the determining coalition partner.

Leading Lega minister Roberto Calderoli, with his trademark tact, commented ‘By now this chapter is closed. The treaty won’t come into effect. But if somone thinks of going ahead with the ratification process, they should know that they won’t have our vote”. In fact, Calderoli went as far as invoking that dreaded curse, a referendum (while Italy is not obliged to ratify the treaty via referendum, there does appear to be a legal possibility for the lega to seek a consultative referendum).

The Lega have already run into difficulties with Berlusconi – for example over his position regarding their proposal to make illegal immigration a criminal offence. The Lega have, in the past, brought down Berlusconi (leading him to declare he’d never enter into government with them again). If they’re looking for an opportunity to humble Berluska, there could be hardly be a more emblematic issue on which to do so – a small party stading up to the Eurocrats.

There’s going to be a fair amount of horse-trading going on to move the Lisbon treaty forward, and it’s by no-means simply an Irish affair.

* There are various other issues, perhaps less important on the national/international stage, but hugely important to Berlusconi’s business interests, not least of which is the ongoing ‘Rete 4′ problem. Various rulings, both from the Italian court of final appeal, and from the EU courts have ruled that Berlusconi’s third national tv channel Rete 4 was unfairly awarded its broadcasting frequencies, and should thus be forced off the national airwaves onto satelite broadcasting (with an associated loss of advertising revenue). Failure to do so implies massive fines. A situation that is hard to put in a positive light to the electorate who end up paying the bill.

[1] Non si puo’ andare avanti con il voto all’unanimita’ in una Unione a 27 […] E semttiamola did dire che i problemi vengone dagli stati nuovi quelli entrati nel 2004 con l’allargamento. I guai piu grossi sono sempre arrivati dai vecchi. Dalla Gran Bretagna e dall’Irlanda, che fra l’altro ha avuto vantaggi enormi dall’adesione. […] Sono molot addolorato perche’ il no viene da un popolo che piu’ di ogni altro ha goduto i vantaggi dell’adesione alla Ue e ha avuto tassi di sviluppo elevatissimi e aiuti economici che non hanno confronti” – Prodi: ” Basta con i veti chi non ci sta esca dall’Ue – La Repubblica 14/06/2008

[2]”Ne’ si puo’ pensare che la decisione di poco piu’ della meta’ degli elettori di un paese che rappresenta meno dell’1% della popolazione dell’Unione possa arrestare l’indispensabile ed oramai non piu’ procrastinabile processo di riforma” – President Giorgio Napolitano – La Lega esulta e imbarazza il governo – La Repubblica 14/-6/2008

[3] “Non deve essere un’organizzazione burocratica […] deve avere una politica estera comune di alto profilo” – Silvio Berlusconi – La Repubblica 14/06/2008

[4] “Oramai questo capitolo e’ chiuso . Il Trattato non entrera’ in vigore. Ma se qualcuno pensa comunque di procedere con la ratifica, allora sappiate che non ci sara’ il nostro voto” – Roberto Calderoli – La Repubblica 14/06/2008