Emilio Colombo, Former Italian Premier, Dies at 93
George Tames/The New York Times
Published: July 1, 2013
Emilio Colombo, the prime minister of Italy at the start of the 1970s who curbed roaring inflation, battled political extremism and legalized divorce in his country while helping to build an integrated Europe, died on June 24 in Rome. He was 93.
Alberto Lingria/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
His office announced the death.
After World War II, Italian governments formed and fell with dizzying regularity, as did cabinet posts within the governments. Mr. Colombo emerged from Roman Catholic youth organizations to win a seat in Parliament at 26 and then held virtually every major cabinet position — agriculture, trade, finance, foreign affairs — before he became prime minister for 18 months between 1970 and 1972. The government he headed, centrist in its policies, was Italy’s 32nd since the war.
Mr. Colombo helped write some of Italy’s basic postwar reforms, including those that redistributed land to the poor, nationalized electricity production and spurred development in the nation’s impoverished South.
A self-described technocrat, Mr. Colombo wrote much of the Treaty of Rome, which in 1958 established the European Economic Community, a precursor to the European Community and the European Union. Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, said in a statement that Mr. Colombo was “a key figure in Italian history and European integration.”
As prime minister, Mr. Colombo, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Party, juggled his and three other parties to form coalitions that would keep power from falling to the Communists, whose political strength in Italy exceeded that of any country in Western Europe. He also faced down the neo-Fascist right, survived waves of strikes and violence, and imposed new and higher taxes to successfully fight galloping inflation.
His foreign policy included establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and maintaining Italy’s strong support for the United States.
Communists said the Central Intelligence Agency had interfered in Italian politics on behalf of the Christian Democrats. Mr. Colombo denied the accusation. But in his 2007 book, “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA,” Tim Weiner, a former reporter for The New York Times, quoted former C.I.A. employees in Rome as saying that they had indeed distributed $25 million to anti-Communist parties in Italy beginning in 1970.
Mr. Colombo’s coalition collapsed in February 1972, partly over his signing, in 1970, of Italy’s first law legitimizing divorce. Like the Vatican, his own Christian Democrats opposed the legislation, while leftist members of the coalition demanded it.
In 1974, the law survived an attempt at a repeal, with 59.3 percent voting to support it.
Emilio Colombo was born on April 11, 1920, to a lower middle-class family in Potenza, 100 miles southeast of Naples. A bishop in his home region persuaded him to go into politics. Many called him “Cardinal Colombo” because of his strong faith.
Mr. Colombo earned a law degree from the University of Rome and joined Catholic Action Youth, a Vatican-backed political organization, rising to vice president and gaining enough prominence to win a seat in Parliament in 1946. That year he was elected to a convention charged with writing a new republican constitution to replace Italy’s monarchy. He was the last surviving member of that constitutional convention.
In 1948, after being re-elected to Parliament, Mr. Colombo was given his first leadership post, undersecretary of agriculture. He used the position to develop programs to help his native region in the South.
Mr. Colombo was twice foreign minister, in 1980-83 and 1992-93. In his first term, he was a strong backer of American plans to base medium-range ballistic missiles in Europe. A Soviet radio commentary said a long article he wrote on the subject sounded as if it had been written in Washington by the State Department.
Mr. Colombo was known for his total immersion in politics, which he considered “a priesthood,” a Milan newspaper wrote in 1970. He wore dull ties and well-pressed suits, and his crispness of bearing prompted a friend to suggest that he needed only an umbrella to be British.
In 2003, just after being appointed a senator for life, Mr. Colombo disclosed that he had used cocaine three or four times a week for more than a year. He said that he had used the drug for “therapeutic purposes,” and that he was making the admission to prevent his bodyguards from being prosecuted as his procurers. Consumption of cocaine in Italy is not a criminal offense, but trafficking is.
At the same time, Mr. Colombo also disclosed that he was homosexual. For years he had told interviewers that he was too busy to marry. Information on survivors was unavailable.
When Mr. Colombo visited the United States in 1971, an editorial in The Times praised his political agility, saying he had “surmounted more perils than Pauline.”
His sense of humor surely helped. When meeting with Mayor John V. Lindsay, who was grappling with huge fiscal challenges in New York City, Mr. Colombo invited him to Rome if he wanted to see real problems.
“I believe this would be a great source of comfort for you,” he said.