ITALY. Italy is starting its term of office in the European presidency in political disarray, and feeling distinctly uncomfortable with its European partners.
So when The Guardian's correspondent in Rome, John Hooper, last week picked out a rising young Mafia boss as a potential Italian of the Year for 1996, he unleashed a storm of media protest.
Front-page articles and editorials in all the main newspapers, as well as Italian television news, accused Mr Hooper and The Guardian of stirring up old stereotypes about the country. Mr Hooper, taken aback by the extent of the reaction, defended himself elegantly enough from the pages of the Corriere della Sera. In a Europe without borders, he said, Cosa Nostra today has become, in a sense, "our business" too, punning on the name by which the Mafia is usually said to be known among its members, and which translates as "Our Business".
Italy, a founder member of the community, has from the beginning felt itself to be a particularly "European" country, and this has rubbed off on the younger generation. Three years ago, a nationwide survey of 15 to 24-year-olds showed that 31 per cent defined themselves as European. Just over half - 52 per cent - identified themselves as Italian; the rest (17 per cent) saw themselves as belonging primarily to their region of origin (Sicily, Tuscany, and so on). Similar figures emerged this week in a straw poll conducted for The TES among first year university students in the north of the country.
Schools have contributed a lot to this sense of identity. European-funded initiatives to bring Europe to the classroom have been generally well received: this year a research-based project, Discover Europe, is being launched in upper secondary schools. A few years ago an annual competition run by RAI, the state broadcasting service, attracted hundreds of thousands of entries. In the Veneto area a long-running education-for-Europe project has been promoted in all schools, primary and secondary, hand in hand with peace education, and financed directly by the regional authority.
But the RAI competition has stopped, and the Veneto project has gone off the boil; two small signals perhaps, that Italy is somehow beginning to come adrift of the community. In the public mind, for a country in chronic need of reform, Europe has become a sort of Shangri-la, representing efficiency and the capacity for regeneration.
Education minister Giancarlo Lombardi recently made an impassioned plea for changes to the antiquated education system. "In recent years," the minister said, "almost all European countries have embarked upon major reforms of their education systems. . . I would like 1996, designated European year of life-long learning, to herald the beginning of the season of reform for this country too."
These reforms should include more decision-making at local level, the raising of the school leaving age to 16, the introduction of initial teacher training, and an overhaul of a university system in which the drop out rate stands at around 70 per cent.
But further European embarrassment seems just around the corner with the stance taken by many Italian universities towards their foreign, mostly European, language teachers. After two verdicts by the European Court of Justice which ruled the teachers should have rights similar to those enjoyed by Italian colleagues, a new contract has been drawn up which effectively downgrades the status of foreign lettori.
These have been the main teachers and examiners of foreign languages in the universities for many years. The contract puts them on a par with technical support staff and offers a salary of 20 million lira (around Pounds 8,000) before tax - subsistence level wages. The contract is a cynical reply to what is seen as European "interference" in a purely domestic matter.
Now a resolution on a human rights platform has been proposed by British MEPs Hugh McMahon and Glenys Kinnock, and signed by Tory colleagues. It condemns Italy for failing to implement community law and for its continued harassment of the language teachers, many of whom are British. The issue is a sensitive one at a particularly sensitive moment, and it has caused President Scalfaro to intervene publicly by describing the treatment of the language teachers as "a disgrace".