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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 October, 2004, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
EU drama overshadows Italy's plans
By Tamsin Smith
BBC reporter in Rome

The European flag flutters expectantly behind the statue of Marc'Aurelio in Rome's Campidoglio Square in anticipation of the signing of the new European Constitutional Treaty on Friday.

The Italian love of sartorial perfection has dressed the ceremonial rooms in their Sunday best, renovations costing 3.5m euros (2.4m).

EU sign in Rome
Rome has been getting an EU makeover
New carpets and brocaded hangings adorn the same location where, 47 years ago, six leaders met to sign up to the idea of a European Community. The moment was captured in grainy black-and-white photos.

Before this week, the only thing officials had to worry about was the possibility of rain, but now it looks like the storm in Brussels could overshadow the whole event.

Italy may be playing generous host but, paradoxically, it is also the main protagonist in an escalating European furore. The outspoken comments made by Rocco Buttiglione, Italian nominee for justice and home affairs commissioner about homosexuality, women and single mothers has plunged the EU into institutional crisis.

On Wednesday, incoming commission President Jose Manuel Durao Barroso withdrew his proposed commission after MEPs threatened to reject the entire team unless Mr Buttiglione was replaced: an unprecedented drama which leaves Italy's grand ceremony preparations somewhat less grand.

"Italy is immersed against its will somewhere between psychological thriller and political limbo," laments Corriere della Sera. "Europe has already identified its scapegoat."

History helps

Silvio Berlusconi has just completed a tour of the ceremonial locations, but carpet colours and flower arrangements are now the least of his concerns as fellow European leaders lean heavily on him to offer a replacement commissioner for conservative Catholic Rocco Buttiglione.

Despite reports in Italian papers that the Italian prime minister has already called Mr Buttiglione to suggest a face saving retreat, the would-be commissioner is standing firmly by his convictions that he can do the job. Mr Berlusconi may be asked to push harder.

Ask an Italian if he or she worries about ceding sovereignty to Brussels, and you are usually met with a 'so what' kind of shrug
Signing the constitutional treaty in Rome rather than any other European capital was a slick piece of political symbolism that Mr Berlusconi was desperate to claim. Of course history was on his side.

Where better to replace Europe's founding 1957 Treaty of Rome? Furthermore, all original and signed copies of EU treaties are already housed in the Italian capital. But the treaty negotiations collapsed into bitter infighting and stalemate under the Italian presidency of the EU last year, leaving the Irish presidency to pick up the pieces.

Cynics in Rome dismiss Mr Berlusconi's commitment to Europe as little more than "catering diplomacy", Italy providing the meals whilst others hammer out the arguments.

Italy is already boasting that it will be the first EU country to ratify the shiny new constitutional treaty, perhaps even before Christmas and, as Foreign Minister Franco Frattini claimed, definitely before the Germans.

Silvio Berlusconi in Rome
Silvio Berlusconi has been accused of 'catering diplomacy'
Italy's own national constitutional arrangements mean international treaties can be adopted without a referendum. But the Northern League, a belligerent member of the governing centre-right coalition, is still shouting for a national vote.

While the treaty signing is a coup de grace for the Italian government, many ordinary Italians are less enthusiastic. Many are more concerned with constitutional changes afoot in their own parliament.

Ask an Italian if he or she worries about ceding sovereignty to Brussels, and you are usually met with a "so what" kind of shrug.

However the exclusion of a reference to Europe's Christian heritage in the new constitutional treaty is felt most keenly in Rome. And the Buttiglione affair has only added volume to whispers of an EU led anti-Catholic conspiracy.

Live broadcast

Leaders avoiding the rather sticky question - whither the future of the EU? - may wish themselves transported back to the less complicated ceremony of 1957. No sirens, no helicopters, no armed police escorts for the six founding fathers of Europe.

It took them just an hour to sign the first Treaty of Rome.

"Now we can barely squeeze all the heads of state into the room," said one official. "Europe seems to have expanded somewhat," he laughed wryly.

A live TV broadcast supervised by Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli will broadcast the historic moment to millions of viewers.

"A day of pride for Rome and for Italy, always European at heart," boasted l'Avvenire newspaper earlier this week, perhaps rather prematurely.




SEE ALSO:
Full text: Barroso's EU speech
27 Oct 04 |  Europe
Barroso backs down over EU vote
27 Oct 04 |  Europe
Should Barroso reshuffle his team?
26 Oct 04 |  Have Your Say
Q&A: EU Commission row
26 Oct 04 |  Europe
Analysis: EU team a hard sell
21 Oct 04 |  Europe
At-a-glance: EU commissioners
08 Oct 04 |  Europe


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