Europe's President Opposes War with Iraq and Tells Britain to Stop Dithering over Entry to the Euro. (the NS Interview - Romano Prodi)

By Riddell, Mary | New Statesman (1996), April 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Europe's President Opposes War with Iraq and Tells Britain to Stop Dithering over Entry to the Euro. (the NS Interview - Romano Prodi)


Riddell, Mary, New Statesman (1996)


The sanctums of even the grandest Eurocrats resemble council parking permit offices. To counter this effect, Romano Prodi has imported keepsakes from back home. Gilded mirrors, on loan from Italian museums, adorn the walls of his Brussels workspace. A vast fresco of cherubs overhangs his seating area. But the president of the European Commission is an internationalist whose cultural tastes go wider than celestial Renaissance art. When, for example, he considers Tony Blair and the euro, Samuel Beckett springs more prosaically to mind. "We cannot go on for years and years waiting for Godot," Prodi complains.

One wonders if Blair, who labelled the EU summit in Barcelona "a joy as ever", knows how fervently his disillusion is reciprocated. Not that Prodi seeks a slanging match with his former ally. "I don't want to interfere in the British government's decision," he says, but his scorn for UK dithering is startling. I ask if he thinks Peter Hain, our minister for Europe, was right to predict that joining the euro now looks "inevitable". Prodi sighs. "This is your problem. I'm happy if you join. Please do it. Or don't do it. It is up to you. We have an Italian expression which I cannot repeat. It covers the situation."

Presumably this vulgarity, like its English equivalent, means: get a move on, or don't bother? "Yes," he confirms. "Let's say don't bother." If Blair is Godot, where does that leave Gordon Brown's five economic tests? Prodi sighs again, and invents a clear and unambiguous hurdle of his own. "I repeat: this is your problem. I don't judge the tests you make. If you were also to say that Britain will enter [the euro] when each Briton can jump more than a metre in the air, I wouldn't judge that test either. It is up to you."

This derision might be more easily shrugged off by Downing Street and the Treasury if it weren't for Prodi's financial reputation. A professor of industrial economy at Bologna University, he became prime minister of Italy in 1996, leading the centre-left Olive Tree coalition for a 28-month stint. In a country where governments topple like skittles, that tenure was the second longest since the war. It was also a success for Prodi, who redeemed Italy from a fiscal basket case and met the economic qualifications for the eurozone.

In Olive Tree days, Blair was a Prodi fan. When Jacques Santer, defeated by sleaze, left the Commission presidency, Blair was all for Prodi's candidacy. That ardour has cooled to the point where the British Prime Minister, so one insider claims, now grumbles that "academics don't make good politicians". The disappointment is mutual.

Among Prodi's worries is the paucity of the British debate. The euro, he thinks, "would give to Britain a sense of belonging that, currently, it does not have. I saw the recent Panorama programme [which registered a No vote to the euro], and I was very surprised ... The question seems simply to be: shall we have more influence with the euro or without it? No one was saying that the euro is important for creating a European identity, which is necessary for the world of globalisation. Or that this is progress towards the order of the future world. Never. This was never mentioned."

It is true that Prodi's messianic stance on Europe has limited resonance in Britain. Barcelona, once billed by Blair as "make or break", was criticised by the Eurosceptic press for offering only incremental progress in economic reform and deregulating electricity and gas markets. Prodi is more upbeat. "It [the summit] was undervalued by the press in terms of financial services -- the most important result. There are chapters that will clearly change all the financial markets of Europe." But moves towards an integrated European capital market are, he acknowledges dolefully, too obscure to grab attention.

Prodi himself is far from an austere technocrat. A cheerful man of 63, he has a Desperate Dan jawline and a paternal fondness for the euro. …

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