Volume 2 Number 4
Pilgrim of a Caring Europe
01 April 1989

The Bersani of today developed from the student who used to go with his friends to the poorer parts of town every Sunday to see what they could do.

He started his day in his native Italy, fought his way through fog to his office in Brussels, and will be in Strasbourg tomorrow. Giovanni Bersani, the once reluctant politician, has tirelessly devoted himself over many years to making Europe a caring community rather than a rich man's club - and you'd hardly guess that this sprightly, alert bachelor is 75 years old. He is, in fact, by several years the longest serving and oldest Member of the European Parliament. And most months his arduous travel schedule includes a visit to Africa as Co-President of the Joint Assembly of the Lome Convention.

He likes to be at work `on the ground', not just meeting leaders: `I meet people and talk with them, I try to understand reality. I was up until one this morning with 50 young people, talking about the Middle East.' He is one of those practical dreamers who glimpse a vision of how things could be and then roll up their sleeves and get down to work, instead of theorising about what others should do. Action seems as natural as breathing. He reacts with an embarrassed laugh when asked to give his `political testament', a credo at the close of a long career. He's not thinking of retirement.

The Bersani of today developed from the student who used to go with his friends to the poorer parts of town every Sunday to see what they could do. `Bit by bit,' he recalls, `I found myself at the heart of a series of practical initiatives to help those in need.' This was in the Italy of Mussolini, and much of what Bersani and his friends did was illegal. Then came the war. `As soldiers,' he recalls, `we had to ask ourselves what we could do when it was all over, to rebuild, to see that this could never happen again.'

At the end of the war the communists made a violent bid for power. He tried to stand against it. Trained as a lawyer, he had opened his own practice in Bologna - the worst hit region in Italy, known as `the death zone'. `The ordinary people, the poor people, were facing terrible problems,' he recalls.

By 1946 friends were trying to persuade him to stand for parliament, but he refused. Then in 1948 he agreed at the very last moment, thinking that there was no chance of his getting elected. He remembers it as an important time of decision, between the ideas of democracy and communism. The Christian Democrats won a massive victory, and Bersani found himself elected, without having made a single speech.

Three years later he arrived home at two o'clock one morning to find his mother waiting up with an urgent message to phone the Minister of Labour. He learnt that the morning newspapers were going to announce his appointment as Under-Secretary of Labour in the government of de Gasperi - who was an early pioneer of moves towards a European community. Bersani modestly jokes that they had needed to find someone in a hurry as it was two days before the summer holidays.

He entered the European Parliament in 1960 -`The EEC opened so many more possibilities.' He got involved straight away in the question of Third World development, and travelled widely in Africa. He attended the independence ceremonies of several countries and met some of the famous leaders of that period - Senghor, Houphouet-Boigny. `These personal friendships were an important element,' he says. But, true to form, he also travelled to the villages in the bush, getting to know the poorest and their conditions at first hand.

Having earlier introduced a scheme in the Italian Parliament to encourage young people to do voluntary service in developing countries, Bersani tried to start something similar in the European Parliament. For five years he was defeated every year. His colleagues couldn't see the relevance of his plan for what they saw as a purely economic community. His ideas seemed to be more on a cultural and moral plane -`That's not our business,' they said. He replied, `But this factor is vital for a community that aims to be open. It is not meant to be a purely commercial structure but a structure of solidarity.'

At the beginning of the community's ventures into the outside world he visited the Sahel with two other colleagues. They saw massive dams and great projects surrounded by desert. Then they visited some of his Italian friends, working under the Italian voluntary service scheme, and saw small-scale projects, earth dams, surrounded by greenery and living communities. `We saw the importance of a man on the ground, with the right ideas,' Bersani says. `These people were living with the population. Their relationship with the local people was completely different from that of the civil servants coming from outside.' His colleagues came back convinced and finally, in 1973, his scheme was passed. `It is one of the few important parts of the budget that always gets a unanimous vote,' he claims with pride. There are now 14,000 young Europeans working on projects in Africa alone. Seeing the difficult conditions on his African trips, Bersani admits, always wounds his heart, `but when I see the children pour out of the schools in their thousands, I find new hope'.

Bit by bit he found himself involved in the creation of the Lome Conventions. These grew out of the European Community's development policies, and the long-standing links between the individual Community countries and their former colonies. The Conventions represent a unique partnership of cooperation. The current Convention brings together the Twelve of the present Community and 66 developing countries from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific - the so-called ACP countries. These range from tiny island states such as Tuvalu (pop 8,000) to large countries including all of independent Africa south of the Sahara. Four hundred million people, including many of the world's poorest, live in the ACP countries.

Total annual aid now amounts to about $9,700 million, most of which goes in grants and low-interest loans. The Conventions also cover aspects of trade - for instance they stabilize export earnings from certain minerals and many agricultural commodities such as cane sugar. The present Convention, which lasts till 1990, gives increased priority to rural development, with maintenance taking priority over new capital projects.

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Rabbie Namaliu, describes Lome as `a symbol of international cooperation; virtually the sole beacon in an otherwise dark and unlit sea, strewn with unfulfilled hopes'. Gaston Thorn, one of the great European statesmen of his generation, calls it `the most complete example of what the North-South dialogue is meant to be'.

Bersani talks of the long struggle to link development with human rights. The first step was to include these in the Lome Conventions. But some heads of state objected to any interference in their internal affairs. It took eight years of struggle and discussions with different heads of government and parliaments before agreement was reached. But this is now a great strength, Bersani claims, citing a visit to Mengistu of Ethiopia at the time of the big drought. Bersani presented Mengistu with a list of 92 political prisoners which had been given him by Amnesty International. Despite Mengistu's displeasure and initial denial that the list was authentic, Bersani insisted, `I'm sorry, Mr President, I've looked into it, and I'm convinced that the list is a genuine one.' A week later 64 of the prisoners were released. He relates a similar encounter with the Prime Minister of Burkina Fasso and concludes, `Human rights is a chapter that works.'

He goes on to talk about his next dream - a Lome type agreement for the countries around the Mediterranean, including some of the countries at odds with each other. There has been a host of informal meetings, building up relationships of trust, including, at Bersani's initiative, two Mediterranean sessions during Moral Re-Armament conferences in Caux, Switzerland. He believes that movement towards dialogue and peace is possible, despite the serious conflicts in the Mediterranean. `This region is the cradle of our civilization and of the three monotheistic religions,' he points out. `The important thing is to get together people of the spirit who have a vision, an ideal. It is always that kind of person who changes the tide of events.' He talks of the need to advance on two lines simultaneously - the level of institutions and structures, and the grassroots level, with ordinary people.

At the same time he is deeply interested in Eastern Europe, talking particularly of today's `extraordinary' religious and spiritual developments. `A whole series of events shows that there is a spiritual expectancy, a search for higher values, all through East Europe, in Poland, in the Baltic, and even in Russia.' He remarks on the number of speeches by leaders and those responsible for ideology, referring to the need for moral, and even religious and spiritual values, in building up their society. `The situation is evolving quickly, far faster than we might have thought. There is a space, a window of opportunity, and there is a challenge to work in this direction. It is going to be a fascinating chapter in the life of our continent.' Is he then optimistic about the future? `We must not become resigned in the face of problems,' he replies. `We have to fight for things to change.'

He emphasizes, `We mustn't say that the world's like that; that there's nothing we can do; that such-and-such a continent's going down the drain; that you can't talk with people like them. We must talk with people, try and get a dialogue going, deepen our understanding of the problems, so as to bring change. Even if it's hard, we must try to change people's ideas, their mentalities first, and then of course the structures - starting with the conditions of the poorest, those who suffer most.

`Commitment, genuine and deep motivation - that is what is needed,' he concludes.

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