Euro's first victim

Print edition : January 19, 2002

ITALY'S Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero, the respected former head of the World Trade Organisation, quit the eight-month-old centre-right government of Silvio Berlusconi in the first week of January, causing consternation in Italy and the European Union. His departure dealt a severe blow to the already tainted international image of Italy's media-magnate-turned Prime Minister.

The euro thus claimed its first victim, since the quarrel between Berlusconi and his foreign policy chief was essentially over European policy. Ruggiero, widely perceived as being pro-European integration, maintains close personal ties with a number of international leaders and has served as European Union spokesperson and Commissioner. His induction into the Berlusconi government had reassured European nations that were worried about extreme right-wing views dominating the coalition government. It now appears that their worst fears have come true.

Ruggiero resigned on January 5 following a public clash with Berlusconi, who is under increasing criticism for his authoritarian and often anti-European attitudes.

The business daily Il sole 24 Ore in a signed editorial said: "Ruggiero's international contacts would have constituted a precious asset for any government, particularly Silvio Berlusconi's, which in Europe and elsewhere remains an object of mystery."

Berlusconi's ruling coalition, known as the House of Freedoms, is composed of the reformed former fascist party, his own right-wing Forza Italia (Go, Italy) and the anti-foreigner Northern League. Eurosceptics dominate his government, and Umberto Bossi, Minister and leader of the Northern League, shocked Europeans by saying "I don't care a hoot for the euro" the day after the new currency was issued. Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini, who was one of those tipped to take the foreign portfolio, is a confirmed eurosceptic.

In fact, Italy will put the euro to the litmus test. There has been some chaos in the country with huge queues at auto routes and in front of automatic cash machines. Shopkeepers often refused to give change in euros and banks were sharply criticised for showing callousness towards their clients.

Berlusconi publicly sidelined Ruggiero from any decision-making on the question of Italian support for the development of the Airbus military transport plane, an eight-nation, multi-billion-dollar venture. Berlusconi has also wished to move Italy closer to the United States and made remarks denigrating Islam. Opponents are now calling for Berlusconi to enunciate clearly his European policy.

On January 6, Berlusconi took over as interim Foreign Minister, and said he would keep the portfolio for a few months "because I intend to modernise our foreign policy machinery in order to promote the commercial interests of Italian small and medium businesses in Europe and the world". But critics largely viewed this as further proof of capitulation to the parochial Northern League.

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