The Priorities of the Italian Presidency

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Permanent Representative of Italy to the EU Umberto Vattani presented the priorities of the Italian Presidency at CEPS.

In a speech delivered at CEPS on June 30, Ambassador Umberto Vattani reflected on the origins and meaning of the current constitutional debate in Europe and outlined the challenges that the European Union faced under the Italian Presidency in the coming months.

The return of politics

Why has a comprehensive constitutional debate come so late? In the view of Mr Vattani, this is because Europe has become the victim of its own economic success. Encouraged by the early successes of integration in its ‘heroic phase’ driven by the ‘Founding Fathers,’ the builders of Europe concentrated on the eminently achievable objectives of the single market and standardisation. Economic integration was so successful that political questions were pushed to the background. Even the debates surrounding the referenda in a number of countries on the Maastricht Treaty borrowed their vocabulary from cost-benefit analysis. ‘What is the EU doing for our country?’ it was being asked.

But now, Mr Vattani contended, it was time to see Europeans as citizens rather than as consumers. The return of the political to the debate on Europe was to be welcomed, for economic analysis could not by itself answer why one interest should succumb to another. However, with the birth of a common political consciousness (which economic integration has so far failed to forge), it becomes possible to see what the European public interest is, and which are the higher goals for the sake of which other interests might need to be sacrificed.

According to Mr Vattani, it was time to define Europe politically in such a way that would once and for all commit to the history books the continent’s heritage of political disunity punctuated by attempts at unification based on the concept of empire and conquest. Europe must also find its common voice on the world stage, although this should come about under the principle of consensus rather than coherence. Subscribing automatically to a single foreign policy would be difficult for some nations from a psychological point of view. Hence Mr Vattani preferred to speak of ‘many voices that point in the same direction’ rather than of a ‘single voice.’

Where we are in the constitutional process

Mr Vattani noted that it was to the credit of the enlargement process that the European Union has now set about to define its political character. He saw the European Convention and the forthcoming Intergovernmental Conference as two sides of the same momentous constitutional process. Although of the three ‘components’ that made up the Convention (the national parliaments, the European Parliament, and the governments), it will be only the governments that will participate in the IGC, Mr Vattani trusts that the contributions of the other two highly democratic components of the debate will be borne firmly in the minds of the framers of the constitution.

The new Constitutional Treaty should have been negotiated and signed by 1 May 2004 so that European citizens, of the current fifteen as well as ten new member states, can express their approval or disapproval of the constitution in the vote for European Parliament in June. To proof the text from a legal point of view and prepare translations in all 21 official languages would take about three to four months if the experience of the Amsterdam Treaty is taken as a guide. This implied that the IGC should finish its work by the end of this year.

The three concerns of the Italian Presidency

1. The economic downturn

It was a widely shared viewed (including by Mr Vattani) that the European economic model had worked very well in the past years. Currently, however, in the face of economic stagnation, there is a need to show to the citizens of current as well as new member states that this is a model that can still deliver. Mr Vattani stressed that the key was to reactivate growth without increasing debt. Reaching out for the private money of risk-averse investors, available on the market, and investing it in large European projects (primarily in infrastructure) was in his view a way to stimulate the economy. As an example of how such a scheme has proved to work, Mr Vattani cited Italy’s motorway system.

This and other measures designed to help the markets psychologically, were being put forward by the Italian government in its ‘Action for Growth’ plan that will be presented before the Parliament and the Commission in the first week of July so that it can become subject of the Ecofin ministerial meeting on July 15-16.

2. The security of Europe’s borders

Citizens of the current as well as new member states must have a sense, Mr Vattani said, that the borders of their countries are safe from infiltration by crime, trafficking and illegal migrants. He recalled that Italy has recently experienced an upsurge of migrants trying to enter its coastlands illegally, and under unsafe conditions. He expressed concern that the practice is organized by profiteers who have no respect for human rights and dignity. Europe, he stressed, must not allow this to continue.

The Italian Presidency intends to push forward the programme aimed at the problem of illegal immigration recently adopted by the Thessaloniki summit and to support Commission initiatives in this area.

3. Relations with EU’s neighbours and overseas partners

a) The Eastern and the Mediterranean dimensions

The Union has a responsibility to develop a strategy for its relations with Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia which would be characterised by an evolutionary dynamic leading to closer cooperation with the Union, but not leading to full membership.

Similarly, the Union must develop such a strategy with regard to countries of the Mediterranean basin, where the Union, Mr Vattani felt, has shown inadequate initiative so far. He believed that the common cultural heritage, dating as far back as the Roman Empire, that North Africa shares with Europe should be seen as capital for closer relations in the future. He would thus like to see the Commission’s recent ‘New Neighbours’ initiative enriched with this cultural dimension. The MEDA programme should also be reinforced with increased spending and a greater frequency of meetings.

b) Transatlantic relations

Mr Vattani emphasised the importance Italy attaches to relations with Europe’s overseas partners, especially the United States. He believed there was much that could be done in this area, especially on the political front. The European Union and the United States should be partners facing together challenges of global reach, such as terrorism, proliferation of WMDs, environmental degradation and human deprivation in the Third World.

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