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Italian Diary

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Last week before going to General Synod to sort out - or rather as it happens not to sort out - women Bishops, I spent some days in Rome.

Not particularly looking for spiritual guidance but because I Chair the House of Commons British/Italian Parliamentary Group which brings together UK and Italian Parliamentarians on a reasonably regular basis because we are interested in each other's countries.

Italy is a net donor to the EU Budget so one would have thought that they would share the UK's interests in trying to get the EU Budget under some control.

Not so.

Italian politics are complex.

There is something of a divide between the mainly wealthy northern Italy and broadly poorer southern Italy.

Although Italy overall is a net contributor to the EU, the Italian south actually benefits quite a lot from EU funding in terms of regional grants and money for southern Italian agriculture.

So the EU Budget provides an extremely useful mechanism for northern Italy to effectively recycle money to southern Italy via the EU but without it looking to northern Italian voters as if they are simply giving money direct to their southern cousins.

Put another way, northern Italians seem not to mind giving money to Brussels - even if they know in a roundabout way some of it is going to be recycled back to southern Italy.

They would rather do that than simply give the money to the south direct!

Italian politics are complex.

A Parliament shaped in a horseshoe and an electoral system based on PR and Party lists means that new political parties and alliances between political parties are continuously emerging.

Italy are due to have elections next year.

There seems to have been some agreement that these will now take place early in March.

Interestingly, no-one that we met in Rome knows who is going to be the candidate to lead the Right at those elections.

Possibly Berlusconi will re-emerge - possibly not.

Likewise, there are four or five candidates about to slug it out to see who emerges as leader of the left.

Moreover, no-one is quite sure which political parties are going to be in alliance with whom at next March's elections and all of this is being done as against the background of attempts to change the electoral system, supposedly to make the PR voting fairer.

(At the moment, under the present weighted party list system, depending on the way it tends to work out is those who get more votes, get even more votes added to them and so there is an element of unto them who hath is given more and those that hath not is taken away even that which they hath).

The truth is that the vast majority of Italians, rather like the present government of technocrats headed up by former EU Commissioner, Mario Monti.

This government has the support of left, right and centre and everyone knows that as a consequence, it is able to do things which no government from either end of the political spectrum could necessarily achieve.

The truth is that most Italians aren't particularly concerned about politics - certainly don't care about the European Union - aren't desperately impressed by politicians - they just want to get on and see the country's economy grow.

And they are continuously wanting to make the point that they are neither Spain nor Greece and actually, all things considered, have done pretty well in their austerity drive without everyone turning out onto the street to protest.

The conundrum of Italian politics is that those who are doing best are those who can portray themselves as the 'anti politician' candidates.

For a long time this was the character that Berlusconi created for himself - the outsider who wasn't part of the various ruling cliques.

I suspect that there are just too many court cases into Berlusconi's finances, his conduct as prime minister and the general aura of 'bunga-bunga' for him to continue to be a powerful force in Italian politics. And, in any event, anti-politics politicians tend to get more anti so the latest is a political party in Sicily headed up by a comedian called Grillo whose party seems to have done fairly well in local elections and have said they would challenge Italian parliamentary elections next year.

It is a bit like if people on their ballot papers in the UK were allowed to tick a box which said 'none of the above' - one suspects that such a candidate might win in a number of constituencies.

All the Italian politicians that we met irrespective of where they stood on the political spectrum recognised that the only way forward for the euro is with greater fiscal and banking union.

They also recognise that Britain not being in the euro was going to have to work out some sort of different relationship with the EU but the fact is that almost everyone we met in Italy amongst the Italian politicians rather like the UK and feel that the EU would be somewhat incomplete if Britain wasn't part even if one does get the sense that we are perceived as a somewhat difficult relative who turns up at family weddings and christenings and usually manages to create a row.

The truth is that Italian politicians of left, right and centre are really too preoccupied with trying to sort out Italy's problems to be particularly concerned by those of the UK.