Emma Bonino
Financial Times
Bonino returns to political roots
By James Blitz
Published: May 19 2000 17:36GMT | Last Updated: May 19 2000 18:28GMT
When they leave Brussels, most European commissioners tend to go to plush executive jobs in business, consultancy or government. But Emma Bonino, the fiery Italian who once ran the European Union's fisheries and humanitarian affairs policies, went back to where she first started in politics: the street.
Over the past few days, Ms Bonino, a fragile-looking figure who dons large round spectacles under blonde bobbed hair, has campaigned furiously for "Yes" votes ahead of a series of referendums to be put to the Italian public tomorrow.
Two weeks ago, she set up camp in the cobbled square outside the prime minister's office in the centre of Rome and staged a 24-hour sit-in for seven days. Her aim - partly achieved - was to get parliament to remove the names of dead people from the electoral register. Under Italian law, tomorrow's referendums will only be valid if more than 50 per cent of eligible voters turn up at the polling booths.
The proposals put forward by Ms Bonino and her tiny Radical party are a free-market liberal's wish list. They include scrapping the last bits of proportional representation from the electoral system; ending a system where union dues are automatically cut from wage packets; and abandoning a law under which a court can reinstate a dismissed worker in his job even if the company cannot afford it. "Proposals, all of them, that are essential if this country with its 35 parties and its low economic growth rate is to start looking normal," says the 50-year-old Ms Bonino in her tiny Rome office.
"The sit-in was far more tiring than I thought, not least because it often rained," she says. "I forgot how exposed you suddenly become when you do a thing like that. You engage in endless conversations with the sort of people you might expect to meet on the streets in the middle of the night."
Ms Bonino admits there were a few hairy moments, even for someone who was once arrested by Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan. At one stage, she was involved in angry scuffles when a rival group tried to break up the sit-in. But there were acts of kindness from passers-by too. "I always made sure to take a shower each night in the Italian parliament building next door," she says. "Gandhi said the first rule of public protest is to look after yourself as much as you can."
Italians' views on Ms Bonino are mixed these days. She and her fellow Radicals are among the few groups promoting liberal, free-market policies in a country otherwise dominated by its Catholic and Communist political traditions. Professor Rudi Dornbush, the leading MIT economist, recently wrote an article (dubbed "Three Cheers for Emma Bonino") noting the "wonderful example" that will be set by tomorrow's referendums in a continent which urgently needs economic reform.
Others downplay her effectiveness. As a young woman, Ms Bonino launched numerous sit-ins and protests which eventually led to Italy scrapping its abortion ban. But the Radicals have campaigned for so many referendums since that the instrument has been devalued. Her future in Italian politics is also uncertain. After a surprise success in last year's European elections, the Radicals flopped in last month's regional poll, with a meagre 2.7 per cent of the vote.
When the polls close tomorrow night, Ms Bonino will discover whether Italians are prepared to recognise her perseverance. Even if the referendums are passed, parliament would have to go through the elaborate process of legislating for some of the reforms.
But for now, the "humility" of an ex-European commissioner prepared to camp out on the streets of Rome for her beliefs impresses some of Italy's opinion-formers. "After all the attention that you get as a commissioner in Brussels," wrote one recently, "it takes a certain courage to be true to yourself and fight your cause on the pavement."