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Monday, May 10, 1999 Published at 13:22 GMT 14:22 UK

World: Europe

Profile: Romano Prodi

Prodi leads the 'Olive Tree' coalition to victory in 1996

By David Willey in Rome

Romano Prodi is one of Italy's most successful post-war Prime Ministers.

A former Christian Democrat, he threw in his lot with the ex-Communists when they transformed themselves into the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS).

EU in crisis
Between April 1996 and November 1998, he led the 'Olive Tree' centre-left coalition, the first genuine left-wing administration in Italy since the fall of Fascism.

The mild mannered, bespectacled 59-year-old Bologna University Professor surprised everyone by successfully getting Italy accepted as a member of the single European currency against all odds.

He achieved it through a carefully managed policy of government financial and fiscal discipline.

Mr Sausage

Mr Prodi may lack popular charisma - his political enemies call him "the Mortadella" after the rather bland sausage for which his city is famous - but his low-key style of government by consensus and compromise won over millions of Italians.

Since leaving office he has founded a new political party - the Democrats - with the support of a group of go-ahead local city mayors.

Until his possible nomination as President of the EU, he had been planning to stand as a candidate under this new party banner in the forthcoming European Elections.

Pedalling professor

He graduated in economics at Milan's Catholic University in 1961 and did postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics. He also spent a year as visiting professor at Harvard in 1974.

A devout Roman Catholic, he married his childhood sweetheart Flavia and has two grown-up sons.

[ image: Enjoying a return to the LSE in 1998]
Enjoying a return to the LSE in 1998
He is very much a man of the people and his favourite recreation is bicycling. At home in Bologna he frequently goes to work on his bicycle.

During the whistle-stop election campaign, which brought him to elected office as Prime Minister in 1996, he travelled up and down the peninsula on a second-hand bus.

His political opponent, Silvio Berlusconi, flew around wooing voters on his private jet.

Romano Prodi's first taste of ministerial office was a six-month stint as industry minister in 1978-79.

He served as chairman of the powerful state-owned industrial holding company IRI - from 1982 to 1989 and again from 1993 to 1994. During this period he turned huge losses by this unwieldy collection of more than a hundred state enterprises - a relic of Fascist times - into profit, and launched a series of privatisation programmes.

However he twice came under investigation for alleged corruption while he was head of IRI. He was accused of conflict of interest first in connection with contracts awarded to his own economic research company, and secondly over the sale of a loss making state owned food conglomerate to the multinational Unilever - for which he had for a time been a paid consultant.

Both cases were later shelved as prosecutors failed to establish a prima facie case against Mr Prodi.

During the 1990's Italy's crusading judiciary conducted a 'clean hands' campaign which led to the downfall of the political party to which Mr Prodi formerly belonged and which had led practically every government in Italy since the fall of Fascism - the Christian Democrats.

The criminal justice system was sometimes abused by over zealous prosecutors as a means of settling old political scores.  Many  prominent politicians and heads of state corporations were threatened with prosecution. Mr Prodi's reputation was never seriously besmirched by judicial enquiries into his management of IRI.

'Tactics but no goals'

Romano Prodi has held a consistent vision of what is wrong with Italy and Europe.

I remember first interviewing him way back in 1984 when he singled out the art of compromise as the most important political value in Italy.

"We have a great capacity for compromise," he said. "The style of negotiating here is very different from that in France or Britain.

"Tactics and cunning are what seize the imagination of Italians. The conduct of business here is frequently all tactics and no final goal. It may be because the Italian State is so weak that Italian society is so much alive and has such an ability to innovate.

"Italy is an excellent example of 'social do-it-yourself'. But without collective goals Italy will increasingly remain an object of curiosity to historians and social scientists."

Like most Italians Mr Prodi is strongly attached to his roots.

"The fact that I was born in Reggio Emilia is basic," he told me. "We still don't all speak the same language in Italy. I cannot understand a lot of words in the Bologna dialect, which is only fifty miles from where I was born.

"The history of foreign occupation of Italy is written into our dialects. For example the lira is called in dialect the 'franc' in one village near my home town and two miles down the road it's called the 'pfennig'."

Thanks to Romano Prodi a new currency has already entered the Italian lexicon - the Euro.

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