In Italy, New Wine in Old Bottles

Article excerpt

VERDI himself could not have orchestrated it any better. Just as Italy takes over the presidency of the European Community, intending to sensitize the Italians' partners to Mediterranean issues, Iraq invades Kuwait.

Italy's contention that Europe's southern flank is vulnerable now seems prescient, and the Gulf standoff is affording Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti an unprecedented opportunity to lead the community to heightened foreign policy unity. But the crisis has also momentarily distracted attention away from the Italian political class's steadfast resistance to much needed budgetary, regulatory, and political reform.

Italy is nothing if not a paradox. It stands accused of political instability, but while governments fall with alarming frequency, the constellation of cabinet members is virtually unchanging. Prime Minister Andreotti has led the government six times, and many of his Christian Democratic partners have had careers nearly as long and diverse. The lack of political regeneration suggests that, if anything, Italian politics is far too stable.

Italy has enjoyed tremendous economic and political success over the last decade. Its largest companies, such as Fiat, have emerged as world-class mulitinationals, while highly flexible and smaller firms sell products appreciated for their superior quality and design. Even the once volatile lira is now reliable, and inflation is down due to the Bank of Italy's stringent monetary policy. Although southern Italy remains mired in poverty, the country as a whole is as dynamic and wealthy as virtually any country in the world.

Terrorism, which once brought Italy to its knees, has waned considerably, and the global failure of Marxist ideology now compels the Italian Communist Party, the West's largest, to revamp its image, democratize its structures, and even scramble for a new name. These political and economic developments have spawned increased Italian activism in the international sphere.

The Italians are aggressively building a strong presence in the Soviet Union, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, all of which see Italy as a bridge to the European Community. Italy's strategic importance to the United States is also growing, not only as a potential counterweight to a unified Germany, but more importantly, as a frontier state to a crisis-plagued and ever more militarily potent Middle East.

Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis would like to see Europe more engaged in the Middle East for a number of reasons, including the growing tide of Arab immigrants to Europe, regional power imbalances, the proliferation of chemical and ballistic weapons, and European energy vulnerabilities. He is using the EC presidency both to forge tighter links to the Arab Cooperation Council and the Arab Maghreb Union, and to boost EC aid to the region. …