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Italy's numismatic Mr Prodi: guru or godfather?

By Domenico Pacitti

Politics, universities and the Roman Catholic Church are often held to be Italy's three greatest scourges, respectively responsible for the promotion of a Machiavellian mentality, insensitivity to truth and merit as values and the repression of an independent social and moral conscience. Together they have helped maintain a long-standing system, rooted in the Counter-Reformation and reaching back perhaps even as far back as the late Roman Empire, in which corruption continues to be not only socially acceptable but also virtually indispensable for survival.
Like all Italian institutions, including the judiciary and the police force, they are viewed by many as quite literally mafias, sharing identical ground rules with the notorious and more dramatic Sicilian variety, the main difference being that while the latter eliminates its victims physically, the former tends to do so psychologically and spiritually. Common to both are the principle of exchange of favours, gross over-concern with power and money, a cynical disrespect of the law, strict observance of the code of silence and the complete disregard of all social and moral criteria.
History shows that a peculiarly Italian corporative spirit has always automatically transformed any collective undertaking into mafia, rendering it impossible for even the most passive participants to avoid complicity in corruption. The popular saying "In Italia tutto mafia" (In Italy everything is mafia) warns that any resistance to the system would be about as futile as trying to stem the tide.
Viewed in this light, it is both ironical and perplexing that an Italian professor-politician (over 40% of Italy's politicians are university lecturers) with a permissive Christian Democratic background, should have been unanimously approved on a "soul for Europe" ticket to take over from an outgoing Commission accused of fraud, nepotism and mismanagement - activities in which Italians have traditionally been past masters and of which Mr Prodi himself has certainly had first-hand experience.
It was the Church which, through the customary channels of "raccomandazione" (recommendation on the basis of criteria other than merit), obtained for Mr Prodi his first major government appointment as industry minister in the later 70s under the premiership and spiritual guidance of Giulio Andreotti. Mr Andreotti, who has been Christian Democrat prime minister a record seven times, is currently standing trial for his alleged involvement with the Sicilian mafia in the 1979 murder of a journalist who made him the subject of a damning article. That an elusive Mr Prodi may have managed to escape Mr Andreotti's questionable influence is supported by the fact that a number of letters addressed to Mr Prodi at his own ministry are reported to have been returned "addressee unknown".
Mr Prodi began to make his presence felt in 1982 when the Christian Democrat leader, Ciriaco De Mita, another former prime minister who later faced allegations of corruption, placed him at the head of Italy's mammoth state holding company, IRI (the Industrial Reconstruction Institute). When it was decided that he had failed to fulfil his brief of reducing patronage, inefficiency and waste, Mr Prodi was sacked but reinstated again for one year in 1993. During his premiership in 1996, a public prosecutor who accused him of abuse of office and criminal offences in connection with exploiting the privatisation of public companies for personal gain while chairman of IRI was suddenly transferred without explanation.
The chief private company involved was an economic research centre, appropriately named Nomisma (numismatics, or coin collecting), which Mr Prodi founded in his home town of Bologna and ran together with some one hundred shareholders. Mr Prodi's company, which the centre-right national daily newspaper Il Giornale called "a sort of mafia cosca clan", secured numerous contracts from the Emilia regional council in record time to produce study reports on topics such as public holidays (86,000), the state of research and innovation (70,000) and the economic impact of the Italian army (48,000). Although these and similar studies are said to have been either plagiarised or simply thrown together, several were readily purchased by the Bologna provincial council, which just happened to be chaired by Vittorio Prodi, Mr Prodi's brother, who in turn commissioned a Church history of Bologna (80,000) from another of Mr Prodi's brothers, Paolo Prodi, a university professor.
Another of Nomisma's clients, the Tobacco Documentation and Information Centre, had previously been created at the behest of the Philip Morris company, which subsequently signed lucrative contracts with the Italian Finance Ministry for the production and sales of cigarettes in Italy. Mr Prodi's wife too, Flavia Franzoni, is reported to have performed remunerative part-time work providing study reports for public institutions (140,000). She is also said to have benefited from a deal which privatised a former school for social assistants.
But Nomisma's biggest single killing was a piece of research on high speed carried out for the national railways. Netting a cool 4 million and working out at over 2 per word, it carried such gems as "The advantage of high speed is speed", "Speed is greatly appreciated because it saves time", "Preference for the train is inversely proportionate to distance from the station: those who live closest to the station use the train more readily" and "The market value of a flat whose view across a bay is blocked by an eight-lane flyover inevitably falls".
A recently published book which courageously names names - always a perilous practice in Italy - places Mr Prodi's Bologna mafia high among the country's major power groups. Should a new law be approved, says its author, Bologna will as European capital of culture for the year 2000 receive 33 million - 9 million in the first three years and 24 million over the next twenty years - in order to encourage restoration work, which would leave the Prodi family laughing all the way to the bank.
It is an open secret that Mr Prodi obtained his professorship at the University of Bologna, again, through Church recommendations, thus forcing a potentially more deserving candidate to wait up to ten years under the present system for another opportunity, change career or attempt entry through the usual corrupt means depending on his or her level of moral integrity. It is sadly indicative though hardly surprising that in the course of his 25 years of teaching economics and industrial policy at Bologna, Mr Prodi never once spoke out against Italy's universities, one of the country's most criticised mafias, sometimes said to merit the title of universities only by courtesy and arguably the most grotesquely corrupt in the civilised world.
Pending the improbable event of his being brought to trial and convicted of corruption, Mr Prodi seems likely to continue enjoying his foreign reputation as Italy's honest politician, rendered more plausible by an ingratiating priestly manner, an affable nature and an engaging down-to-earth human approach. But the average Italian remains convinced that Mr Prodi has as much chance of being morally upright and free of corruption as he has of being fully immersed in the nearby River Po and stepping out bone dry.
Within this context Tony Blair's words, "I have always made it clear that Romano Prodi has all the qualities to be an excellent president of the Commission", seem decidedly over-generous and Mr Prodi's robust backing by European Socialists for a full five-and-a-half year mandate perhaps ill-considered. Just last month the Socialists argued that Mr Prodi's candidacy for European elections was morally unacceptable - a fine point under the circumstances.
Doubtless Mr Blair's judgement is at least partly based on Italy's successful entry into the European Monetary Union under Mr Prodi's premiership last year. But as Italy's greatest living historian and social observer Indro Montanelli has pointed out, whatever the official records may have shown, there was no legitimate way that Italy could have brought herself into line with the entry conditions in such a short term. Only time will tell whether the Bank of Italy is the one Italian institution miraculously exempt from a mafia mentality. The real miracle was that Mr Prodi's 55th post-war government somehow managed to survive for as long as 28 months. This, as it turned out, had little to do with Mr Prodi himself and much to do with the widespread Italian fear that failure to enter the EMU would have had disastrous consequences for Italy, a fear shared also by the Communist Refoundation party and trade unions which lent Mr Prodi their backing.
As Italy continues to look to Europe for political, economic and moral salvation, Mr Prodi has had a dream, which he has set down in the form of a new book published just last month, An Idea of Europe. "The search for a European soul", he writes, "is beginning to appear as the dominant problem for the future of our continent. It is certainly a sign of weakness to think in terms of a possible future path for Europe's institutions (the strengthening of Parliament, the resolution for the right of veto in exceptional cases and the reorganisation of the European Commission and its powers) while no one is able to dictate to us the path for the reconstruction of a European soul." But in the course of a chapter entitled "A Soul for Europe", which makes copious reference to the Roman Catholic Church, it emerges fairly clearly that Mr Prodi himself intends to dictate such a path while at the same time stressing the prior need for a "great moral revolution".
One might be excused for hoping that in calling for a "specific mandate by EU leaders for reform", Mr Blair intends to leave as little initiative as possible for Mr Prodi's creative capabilities and that he also understands that Italians can be made to work efficiently and even honestly provided they are kept under close surveillance.
To many bemused Italians, stunned by Mr Prodi's windfall appointment but already planning to cash in on it, entrusting Mr Prodi with the presidency of the European Commission is tantamount to entrusting the running of a brewery to a chronic alcoholic, the operation of a casino to an inveterate gambler or the governorship of the Bank of England to the Sicilian mafia. Fortunately, Italy is also an unpredictable country of exceptions, where the only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain. Given the right conditions, Mr Prodi might even succeed. Should he fail, he can always confess his sins.

Note: This article first appeared in Parliament Magazine  on May 17 1999.