The EU and the spider in the Italian labyrinth
Giulio Andreotti died on May 6th as a role model for the European system of decision-making that has emerged in the previous generation
Giulio Andreotti, the man who symbolised the tortured politics of post-war Italy, died on May 6th, aged 94. This great survivor had been elected to Italy’s constituent assembly in 1946 as the Christian Democrats were emerging as the main successors to the defeated Fascists of Benito Mussolini. After being Prime Minister on five occasions, he was made a Life Senator in 1991, continuing to influence the fate of governments well into his eighties.
He was an enigmatic figure, respected because of his uncommon political skills but feared due to his associations with the Mafia. These led him to spend years as a defendant in trials and in 2003, he was actually convicted of terrorist links, resulting in the issuing of a 24-year jail sentence, one that was later quashed on appeal.
His major domestic legacy was to defeat the reformist wing of post-war Christian Democracy (DC), associated with Alcide de Gasperi, the party’s founder. Andreotti helped build up a crony-ridden party that believed in little except staying near the centre of power. Bribery and corruption flourished, with the DC immoveable because most Italians distrusted the alternative, the Italian Communists.
One of his neatest tricks was to push the Social Democrats, under Bettino Craxi, down the same seedy path. The Christian Democrats felt able to stay in the background as the bombastic Craxi held sway in the 1980s.
But so unrestrained were the appetites of the Socialists that a crisis of the whole party system was triggered. Italy had been on the frontline in the Cold War but after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the DC and Craxi’s party were swept away in a tide of pent-up fury. Unfortunately, it would be Silvio Berlusconi who filled the resulting power vacuum and a genuine clean-up of a murky political world proved as far away as ever.
Andreotti was prime minister in August 1991 when he was informed that Mikhail Gorbachev had been topped by hardline enemies. Along with Francois Mitterand, his response indicated that he thought the West just had to learn to live with what was thankfully a short-lived power shift.
He had been foreign minister for much of the 1980s, devoting much attention to cultivating ties with a range of Arab regimes. It was from Andreotti that Colonel Gaddafi learned, a day in advance, of American plans to mount aerial attacks on Libya in April 1986 due to his promotion of terrorism.
Margaret Thatcher got to know Andreotti well at EU summits and she would later write how he projected “a positive aversion to principle, even the conviction that a man of principle is doomed to be a figure of fun”.
In 1985, along with Craxi, he ambushed her at the Milan Summit of Italy’s EU presidency. Jacques Delors, the centralising French Socialist newly-installed at the head of the European Commission, wished to revise the 1957 Treaty of Rome so as to greatly expand EU powers. Thatcher wished to proceed slowly, ensuring that the initiative remained with the national members. However, in a procedural trick, Craxi managed to obtain agreement for an Intergovernmental Conference at the end of 1985. It led directly on to the Maastricht Treaty and the single currency. The Foreign Office, with Geoffrey Howe in charge, was no match for scheming politicians who dreamt of a new bureaucratic order that involved the eclipse of representative democracy.
Until Mario Draghi, a subtle, byzantine operator like Andreotti, who became head of the European Central Bank in 2011, few Italians had held a really top EU job. But at many levels, the institution was dominated by scheming and resourceful Italian officials who treated its different outposts as one big employment agency in which favours could be done on a much bigger scale than back home in Rome.
The EU supposedly has rigid procedures, but they are often punctured by deal-making that transcend ideological lines. British officials who landed in Brussels either proved out-of their- depth or else quickly went native. None have risen as high in the bureaucracy as David (now Lord) Willamson, Secetary-general of the Commission from 1987 to 1997. He even allowed Jacques Delors’s arch-fixer, Pascal Lamy (now head of the World Trade Organization) to re-write the minutes he had taken at Commission meetings so that the Delors line was fully adhered to.
Andreotti ought to be a role model for the European system of decision-making that has emerged in the previous generation. In Italy, he pioneered a secretive and hierarchical system based on deals and favours in which elections hardly changed anything. Voters felt cheated by politicians in charge of an elephantine state which appeared to work only for their benefit. He survived crises too numerous to mention, a Senator for Life though condemned in an Italian court for high crimes. Italy after Andreotti has continued to be a fractious and polarised country.
Instead of being deplored as a malign influence on a country which ought to have made far greater strides after 1945, I suspect Andreotti is regarded as a good old boy at the top of the EU power structures. He personified the failure of a state and its political system and yet never really had his just desserts.
What is there not to like in someone with such a record who died in his bed and will probably now receive the top honours of the Italian state? Perhaps, even as their failures pile up around them, it is this kind of send-off which Jose Manuel Barroso and the other EU panjandrums dream of – that is after their Europe abandons any pretence of listening to what its national citizens want.
Tom Gallagher has written seven books on post-1945 European politics. His next one, Europe’s Path to Crisis: EU Disintegration Through Monetary Union will be published at the end of the year
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