DISCUSSING his approach to foreign affairs this month, Silvio Berlusconi puzzlingly declared that he had “inaugurated the policy of the cuckoo”. This he defined as one of “being open and understanding others, of friendship”. An insight into how it works in practice is offered by a story told in Brussels. Some years ago Europe’s leaders were toiling over an important, if dreary, issue when Mr Berlusconi suddenly turned to Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s then chancellor, and said: “Let’s talk about women. Gerhard, you’ve been married four times. Why don’t you start?”
Apocryphal? Maybe. But the story has a point. For Italy’s prime minister, the EU is boring. In foreign affairs Mr Berlusconi reserves his enthusiasm for his personal diplomatic relations with the leaders of the likes of Turkey, Russia, Belarus, Libya and the Central Asian republics - all countries outside the EU, some of which inspire deep misgivings in Brussels.
Italy was one of the founding members of the organisation that became today’s European Union, and the treaty establishing that organisation was signed in Rome. Italy’s economy is more than twice the size of Poland’s, its population roughly equal to France’s or Britain’s. Yet it has seldom been a decisive force inside the EU. Why? Mr Berlusconi’s idiosyncratic approach to foreign policy provides one answer. But Italy has been underperforming in Brussels for far longer than Mr Berlusconi has been in charge.
Most explanations of this phenomenon begin with an observation. Italians, unlike the British, French and, increasingly, the Germans, do not see the EU as an arena for the resolution of conflicting national interests. Instead, “Europe”, always referred to as if it were somewhere else, is a supplement to - and maybe, one day, a replacement for - their own government, which is axiomatically bad. The EU is like one of those benign but stern creators that reach out of the clouds in Renaissance masterpieces.
To successive Italian governments, “Europe” has been a convenient excuse for imposing unpopular measures. It is why Italians must sort their rubbish, give up their farmland and let in foreign goods. “Europe” is also the reason why certain things cannot be done - in the bureaucratic slang of Rome, it is the vincolo esterno (external constraint).
This utilitarian view of the EU is nevertheless tinged with a genuine idealism that inhibits Italy from playing rough. It rarely practises what is known in Brussels as “cross-table bargaining” (back-scratching deals in which a member state helps another with one issue in return for a hand with a second). And it has seldom used its veto. The most notable recent exception - Rome’s refusal to allow a unanimous condemnation of Russia over its incursion into Georgia in 2008 - was prompted by one of Mr Berlusconi’s extra-European relationships.
These attitudes have translated into a long history of benign neglect. It is striking, for example, that almost uniquely within the EU, Italy has no stable alliances, even with other Mediterranean states. Until quite recently, its negotiating positions, if it had any, were concocted by the permanent representative in Brussels on the eve of council meetings. Government departments failed to co-ordinate European policies. There was no proper parliamentary scrutiny of the domestic impact of EU policies.
In the 1990s a study by Federiga Bindi, an international-relations analyst, identified other barriers to an effective European policy in Italy: a high turnover of governments; coalition partners with conflicting aims; the failure of bureaucrats to learn from other member states; and politicians’ lack of interest in Europe. When she returned to the subject recently * , however, she found that matters had improved. An interdepartmental body for the co-ordination of EU policies has been created (though it is understaffed and over-reliant on the initiative of individuals). Parliament operates an effective scrutiny system. Whatever his shortcomings, Mr Berlusconi has given Italy relatively stable government over the past nine years. And the administration has learnt to learn from others. But the other problems remain, and they are formidable. Differences between coalition parties can still hinder a coherent approach, and parochialism is endemic.
Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, a former finance minister, once noted that Italian has just one word for both politics and policy: politica. In other countries, politics is something that occupies politicians at election time, whereas policy is what they concentrate on in between. In Italy, said Mr Padoa-Schioppa, politics never stops, and so policy is sidelined. In an atmosphere of continual warfare between and within parties, in which every politician from the humblest deputy to the prime minister is looking out for opportunities to best rivals, EU strategy can seem marginal.
Senior positions in European institutions hold little attraction for ambitious Italian politicians. At best, they are seen as well-paid ways of treading political water until an opportunity arises to return to the national stage. Italy’s most senior Eurocrat of recent years, Romano Prodi, who ran the European Commission between 1999 and 2004, spent much of his last year in office plotting his domestic political comeback.
Ms Bindi writes that the so-called Lamassoure report, which three years ago confirmed a cut in Italy’s representation in the European Parliament, was approved at a council meeting while the Italian delegates were out of the room dealing with the latest political crisis at home. Her recent study ends on an exasperated note: “Italy appears to be stuck in the age of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, in which the victory of one faction over another is what counts, and the fact that this may be damaging to the country matters little.”
* "Italy and the European Union", by Federiga Bindi