Minus a Government, Italy Votes for Europe

George Armstrong is the Rome correspondent for Britain's Guardian

The longer a foreign observer lives in Italy the more difficult it is to account for the Italians. Familiarity breeds black holes in one's sense of the national fabric. Why, for instance, did 88% of the adult population go to the polls last month to vote for their representatives in the European Parliament at Strasbourg? (How many Italians know precisely where Strasbourg is?)

That turnout was about two or even three times greater than in the 11 other countries voting, including those such as Britain and Denmark, with longer democratic traditions. And why did 88% of the voting Italians also vote "yes" in a referendum asking if they favored strengthening the powers of that distant Parliament, to include drafting a constitution destined to become the supreme law for everyone in the European Community?

The big question is why Italians are so gung-ho for a united Europe, itself a notion not yet clearly defined beyond the dropping of barriers affecting customs, goods and people.

Some answers will be hazarded.

Forty-one years ago most Italians (and all Italian women) voted virtually for the first time in a democratic election, and in those early years the turnout was 92%. Since "civic duties" are not taught here in school--and probably seldom at home--the number of voters can perhaps be explained by the fact that those who fail to vote in any election may be branded on the "certificate of good conduct" everyone must have to apply for some civil service jobs.

While life was admittedly less complicated when Benito Mussolini decided everything, Italians have continued to vote with the same conviction that takes them into a church for baptisms, weddings and funerals. It is the thing to do. Meeting obligations, and little more, in the polling stations may also explain why the Italians so seldom switch politicial parties, even with a vast choice of about 12 parties on each ballot.

When those 40 million Italians voted in June they had been without a government of their own for exactly one month. Prime Minister Ciriaco De Mita and his five-party coalition cabinet had resigned, causing no excitement, much less panic. The political leaders solemnly announced that the new government "crisis" would be "difficult and long" and they were right. All of the resigned cabinet ministers have remained in their offices during the hiatus and no one so far has noticed the difference.

Could it be that after 47 governments in nearly 45 years, Italians hanker for a big change--namely, collective rule with 11 foreign countries with whom they share so little in common? Do they reckon, perhaps, that a government dominated by friendly aliens might be better, or at least not worse?

To hear the citizens talking about "1992" as if it were a magic number fills a friendly visitor with foreboding. (By 1992 they really refer to Jan. 1, 1993, when all those barriers are expected to drop.)

Italians may be right, for example, in thinking that banking will be better. You can be sure that people with small checking accounts will switch to, say, German or British banks when they open for business here, so shoddily do the Italian banks now treat their clients. And a Danish dentist who decides to hang his shingle here--where the sun shines almost every day and where schools of dentistry were first opened only five years ago--could expect a waiting list of eager patients.

But what about Italy's art treasures? Even though thousands of artworks are routinely stolen in Italy each year, usually on commission, this country is still custodian for about 60% of the entire Western art heritage. The regulations for 1993 say that "goods" may circulate freely within the 12 countries. Then, if an Italian painting is sold to someone in France, will the French guard against legal or illegal exportation to Tulsa or Tokyo? One must assume that proper precautions will one day be taken but, few Italians so far have expressed much concern.

Italian interest in the European Parliament did not stop voters from electing candidates known to have no intention of setting foot in Strasbourg more than a couple of times--or not at all--during the next five years. Most party leaders ran for office and won. This means that their salaries as parliamentarians in Rome--$6,500-a-month, plus perks--double when they sign on the good ship Europa as well.

There have been enterprising Italian politicians who were members of a city council, members of the Italian Senate and members of the Strasbourg Parliament--all simultaneously. No one thinks any less of them for being that clever.

There is a faint suspicion that some wily Italians already regard Europe as a gravy-train and they want to become its conductors. There is also a curious dichotomy between what Italians think they want, or expect to get from Europe, and what their own politicians back home are doing for Europe.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has been whooping like a Wagnerian soprano about Italy's delinquent record as a European partner, including the fact that milking cows on the island of Sicily have been getting subsidies from the European Community chest. Meanwhile, the Rome government admits that about 40% of the value-added tax, which pays for the Community, is artfully dodged by Italians.

One of Italy's permanent commissioners in European Community administration, Carlo Ripa di Meana, allows that his country has chosen to ignore 200 Community rules, but he also complains about the people who tally up those shortcomings, claiming them to be motivated by "ruthless" obstinacy.

Italians are not great newspaper readers; they may not know the sorry facts--or they may not care to know them. Directives from above, like laws, are made to be circumvented when they no longer can be ignored.

Perhaps the strangest aberration in the Italian choices for the European Parliament was the election of two candidates from the Lombard League. Lombardy is the Italian region bordering on Switzerland. The League advocates liberating Milan and the rest of Lombardy from Rome, in order to establish a government of federated regions. That government would restrict the number of southern Italians who migrate to Lombardy and who thus threaten racial purity. The league obviously intends to push its peculiar project from the Strasbourg floor, thereby doing more to promote Italy's disintegration than Europe's unification.

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