EUROPE’S GREATEST LOVERS “Newsweek”

Italians don’t ask how much it will cost, or whether some pain will follow monetary union. They just want to lie back and enjoy it. If we want to understand italy’s love for Europe and its new currency, the euro, a historian, an economist and a political scientist are not enough. We’re also going to need a comedian, a fortune-teller and a marriage counselor. We’ll go into the role of the comedian and the fortune-teller later. First of all let’s see what the marriage counselor has to do with it. We Italians want Europe passionately, and we want her in any way, shape or form (single market, the Schengen cross-border agreement, now the common currency). We are like young men who think they are in love, and want to marry, pronto.
We don’t think "Can we afford it?", or "Will we find a place to stay?" We just want to get on with it, believing, like the Beatles, that all you need is love.
There is no other European nation quite like us. Take the British. First they think long and hard about the cost and the advantages of marriage. They go house-hunting. They take out a mortgage. They make plans. If they are not entirely convinced, they postpone the wedding (this is the case with the common currency). Which is the more sensible attitude? The marriage counselor, that’s where he (or she) comes in-will say that we are too romantic, and the British not enough.
Italy’s carefree, happy-go-lucky romanticism is not confined to the man in the street. Our leaders are like us. They too prefer grand statements to obscure, behind-the-scenes planning. They too behave like excitable Romeos, who run to Juliet’s balcony, but forget the ladder. Our European adventure has been marred by this ambivalence. When we were working on the Rome Treaty (which eventually led to the European Communities), we put forward our best champions (from prime minister Alcide De Gasperi to foreign minister Gaetano Martino). But once we got there, we relaxed. For years, together with a few able men, we sent up to Brussels and Strasbourg the rejects of Italian political life. The historian, I am sure, will confirm.
We are still feeling the consequences of some of those mistakes. One notorius incident-the economist in the panel will remember this-occurred in 1984, when we were deep in negotiation about milk quotas, one of the
thorniest bit of the "common agricultural policy". The Italian delegation showed up with data about national production dating from the 1930s. And delegates were not sure whether they were meant to support Italy’s northern products (milk, cheese) or those from the country’s south (oil, wine).
So they decided to accept some concessions on steel out- put instead. Overnight, Italy became the world’s largest importer of milk. It still is.
If you need more evidence of contradiction between europhilia and eurosloppiness, here it is. We hold the record of European law infringements (together with France); we take too long to translate EU directives into national law; and we seem incapable of using Europe’s aid (the so-called "structural funds").
In the last four years, 44,000 billion lire ($26 billion) has been earmarked for Italy (mosty for its poor south); but only a quarter was committed to specific projects. And only a seventh was actually spent
(Campania, the crime-ridden, high-unemployment region around Naples, spent only a meagre 0.5 percent of the total subsidy). With this sort of money, Ireland and Portugal financed their present boom.
But we love Europe. Our enthusiasm is genuine, and even admirable. As the Political Scientist will point out, it may well be a reaction to our distrust towards national governments (56 since the Second World War). Italians have been so poorly run from Rome thatthey think any alternative will do. They know that most of the good things that have happened to Italy in the last five years-budget reduction, privatization, more competition, less red tape-havebeen imposed by Europe. Most of the bad things, have been produced locally.
Romano Prodi, the prime minister whotook Italy into Euroland (and was promptly dispatched shortly after his accomplishment), knew this. He was even able to impose a hefty on-off levy called "the Eurotax", so that the country would comply with the Maastricht treaty. Italians paid up without flinching (in Britain, people would have taken to the streets). A nation of wise men and women, investing on their future?
Wait a minute. A recent survey shows that – at last – the majoirty of the population knows that "Euro" is the name of our future currency (but many believe it is "Ecu"; while others do not have a clue). Teenagers seem better informed that their parents, but another poll shows that many young Italians believe that "Euro is the name of a satellite TV station". The Comedian will love this-but, again, you could argue that heroes and visionaries are, by definition, brave and out of touch with reality.
What will happen once the Euro is in place? The historian, the economist and the political scientist suggest caution, as does the marriage counselor: when people rush into marriage, they are of- ten in for a nasty
surprise. But Italy is unpredictable. Who knows? Safe, cozy Euroland may turn out to be the perfect place to develop its many skills. If we want to know what destiny has in store for Italy, what we really need is a
fortune-teller. We’ve got one of those too.
Beppe Severgnini

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