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Roman Pomp, European Dream

By Alexander Bevilacqua

By Alexander Bevilacqua

Last Friday, while we all agonized about the impending U.S. elections, in Rome a singular political spectacle took place. On the Capitoline Hill, crowned by Michelangelo’s beautiful piazza, 29 European heads of government and of state met to sign the European Union (EU) constitution. The tulips were Dutch, the direction Italian (Franco Zeffirelli, of “Romeo and Juliet” fame) and all the politicians looked dapper indeed as they posed before the iconic statue of Marcus Aurelius. In true European style, however, the performance was surrounded by a flurry of chaotic disagreement.

The host of the affair, one Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister whose tan out-glows even John Kerry’s, was having a pretty bad day. Rome was chosen not because any of Italy’s neighbors particularly like Berlusconi (quite the opposite is true), but so as to hark back to the epochal 1957 Rome Treaty, which established the European Economic Community and laid the path to the current EU.

On the day of the signing of the EU constitutional treaty—which still must be ratified by all 25 member countries—Berlusconi was forced to withdraw Rocco Buttiglione, his appointee to the European Commission (the executive body meant to guide the EU) amidst threats from the European Parliament (the main legislative body) to veto the entire incoming Commission. Buttiglione, a minister in the Berlusconi government who has close ties to the Catholic Church, had expressed conservative personal views about homosexuality, describing it as “a sin,” as well as about women’s role in society.

The European Parliament reacted strongly against his candidacy for the position of Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs. The Parliament is composed of politicians from all over Europe, united in international coalitions, the strongest of which are the Christian Democrats and the Socialists. Given new authority under the Constitution, its members were asserting their power in the new order by wrangling with the new Commission. Their reaction is also a sign of the secular and progressive values which most parliamentarians identify with the European project.

This drama could not be ignored in Rome on Friday: Both outgoing and incoming commissioners crowded the Capitoline. The imposing neoclassical fresco of the Hall of the Horaces looked down on the heads of government as one by one they stepped up to sign the constitution. The constitutional treaty is a lengthy compilation of all previous EU agreements, meant to clarify the division of competences as well as afford the EU new powers, and is widely considered the ultimate political compromise. Only a relatively weak document could make all states content, and its final form required over a year of negotiations.

When Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the European anthem since 1972, began to play, everyone present stood up somewhat awkwardly. Patriotism is not nearly as common in Europe as in the United States, so the images of the ceremony in the beautiful room were particularly striking. It seemed as if Europe’s politicians, under Zeffirelli’s direction, were trying to give a founding narrative to a process that Europe’s citizens have often seen as bureaucratic and distant. Of course, Europe’s complicated past was ever present: A gigantic statue of Pope Innocent X hovered over the signing of the secular document. Rome, rich with architectural symbols of power—those of the ancient empire, of the papacy and of Mussolini’s fascism—was host yet again to a dream of Europe.

That this dream of Europe is different than its predecessors was signaled by the presence of leaders from Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria, all countries which have started EU accession negotiations. The three politicians also signed part of the document. “A united Europe is not only living up to its potential, it is also excluding war as a political means, since motives to conquer foreign territories will simply not exist in a united Europe,” said Croatian President Stipe Mesic the day after the event. Mesic, in Rome with observer status, hopes that his country will begin negotiations for EU accession in the near future. Of the six countries which emerged in the 1990s from the former Yugoslavia, only Slovenia has joined the EU. Despite the usual European carnival of controversy, then, something important seems afoot.

Italians certainly think so. “There are no alternatives; without the Union and without a Constitution there is no future for Europe,” Italian President and head of state Carlo Azeglio Ciampi said. Italy, which boasted the highest voter turnout in June’s European Parliamentary elections (73.1 percent versus a 45.5 percent EU-wide average), is, according to most studies, one of the most firmly integrationist EU countries. While editorials in the Italian papers reflected excitement, newspapers in the United Kingdom waxed skeptical about what they see as a flawed document and an excessive display. Whereas Italy will ratify the constitution simply through parliamentary vote, which is expected to be unanimous, the United Kingdom, like France, will hold a popular referendum. It is quite possible that the British electorate will reject the document, which needs to unanimous acceptance by all 25 member states to gain validity.

If that is likely, then why all the fuss in Rome last week? The Roman performance was still worthwhile. It was the closest that Europe ever has come to a democratic vision of itself—cosmopolitan, secular, with institutions to encourage both free trade and a redistribution of resources. As Pope Innocent X stared on, he probably did not understand what was taking place. The dream of Europe that the men in front of him were attempting to stage was not his dream, nor that of those other power-hungry leaders who once aimed to unite the continent from Paris or Berlin. It was something altogether different. And as much as the European process of integration may at times seem farcical, there is a definite sense, at least on the Continent, that the show will go on.

Alexander Bevilacqua ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House.

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