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ROME - As I write this memo, back in London British Prime Minister David Cameron has just finished delivering his first major speech on EU reform since he presented his views on the matter in 2013.

While offering a nod to the transformative powers of the European Union, Cameron's calls for reform were uncompromising. His proposals were in some respects valuable. In particular, the idea of a group of national parliaments that holds Europe accountable to its 28 national wills is exactly the kind of creative solution the Union needs to address its chronic democratic deficit.

The prime minister's tone, however, was combative and sometimes condescending, and what emerges politically is clear: In the United Kingdom, there is no figure who will make an unequivocal stand for Europe. That figure can only be David Cameron, and he will first take a hard stance in Brussels' direction. That should of course change as Britain's renegotiation moves further into its formal phase. For now, Brussels has already reacted with some frustration. In Paris and Berlin, there will be exasperated sighs and rolling eyes.

Here in Rome, there will be a mere shrug of the shoulders. Italy has troubles of its own, and a brief journey from London to Italy's perennially struggling south puts on easy display the many different shapes that growing disillusionment with the European Union takes.

The Italian peninsula is a territory transected by geographical diversity and much fragmented by culture and history, resulting in a weak state since its founding in the mid-19th century. It is perhaps little surprise, then, that Italian thinkers such as Altiero Spinelli were among the most enthusiastic proponents of a strong, indeed federal Europe.

By the middle of the last decade, one region that seemed to be benefiting substantially from Europe's growing connections, and from its patronage, was the southeastern Italian region of Puglia. Not too many years ago, I was able to write about the region, then governed by Nichi Vendola, a left-wing, openly gay Catholic politician who governed an area trying to set itself apart from the chronic stagnation that afflicts the mezzogiorno, Italy's south.

EU-subsidized airports in Bari and Brindisi -- regional and provincial capitals, respectively -- glistened to welcome visitors from England, Germany, and the rest of Italy. Vendola pushed the message of a regional economy growing on the back of wind and solar power industries. With greater exposure to the rest of Europe, cities such as Lecce and areas such as the Val D'Itria, Puglia's breadbasket, were emerging as showcases for the best that Italy has to offer. Hope abounded, and ties to the European Union were at the center of the energy.

These short years later, that energy is very different. As Europe's economic crisis has exacerbated the differences between Europe's north and its south, Puglia, from whose coast you can view Albania in the distance on a clear day, has been swept up in the same malaise afflicting the rest of South Italy, where youth unemployment is staggeringly high. In a typical town such as Ceglie Messapica, a great proportion of the inhabitants are children or seniors. The region's economy, according to Banca d'Italia, the country's central bank, is finally levelling out after years of shrinking. Per capita income stands at two-thirds of the Italian average. At the train station in Bari, police make rounds to check travellers' documents, a reminder of the region's proximity to the front lines of the Continent's refugee crisis. As for EU enthusiasm? "Forget Grexit," wrote a Bari journalist about South Italy this summer, "if this were a country, the EU would have already considered kicking it out of the euro."

And then there is Vendola, who these days might fancy himself leading an Italian version of Greece's anti-austerity Syriza party. As I arrived in Rome the day before last, headlines announced the formation of a new grouping, Sinistra Italiana, or Italian Left, which may or may not formally become a political party. Vendola is one of its leaders, and its members include defectors from the center-left Democratic Party. Among their major gripes are the Europe-favored policies and reforms being pushed through by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, a young and engaged politician who has received some admiration in the English-language press.

Here is the strange power of Europe's crisis: It pushes nations and their voters not simply to retreat to familiar ground, but to enter a zone of what you could call radical comfort. In Italy, as is tradition, promising politicians are once again reduced to totemic value: Vendola is just the latest left-wing fringe provocateur, and Renzi the drab defender of the status quo in a tradition stretching back to the defunct Christian Democrats. In Britain, David Cameron, cautiously heeding the will of his electorate, announces that a cranky Britain intends fully to drift back into splendid (it hopes) isolation, with or without its EU membership.

It's an understandable if flawed reaction.


David Cameron's speech at Chatham House

Puglia's economy (in Italian), from Banca d'Italia

Cameron's EU demands, explained by the Guardian

Around the Continent

More trouble for Greece: Across the waters, life is getting no easier for Greece as it attempts to navigate its economic crisis and Brussels' demands. Reuters:

"There will be arguments about why Greece remains in such a state -- from accusations in Athens that lender-imposed austerity has crushed the life out of the economy to gripes from Brussels that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's leftists wasted what improvements had been achieved.

"The two sides are again at loggerheads -- albeit possibly temporarily -- over reforms and bailout cash, with the added complexity that Tsipras does not want to see indebted Greeks lose their homes while the country is providing food and housing for thousands of asylum-seekers."

It's official. Catalonia wants out. On the one-year anniversary of a symbolic, non-binding vote on the subject of independence, Catalonia's parliament voted formally to begin the process of seeking independence from Spain. So what happens now? A showdown with Madrid awaits. El Pais explains:

"The Spanish government will on Wednesday turn to the Constitutional Court to challenge the historic motion that the Catalan parliament passed on Monday to begin the process of breaking away from Spain.

"This should automatically lead to a provisional suspension of the separatist motion while the court considers the appeal.

"But that is not likely to stop the acting government of Artur Mas from working to draft three new laws aimed at creating the foundations of an independent Catalan republic.

"The separatist motion, which got parliamentary approval with 72 votes in favor and 63 against, specifically says that the Constitutional Court no longer has legitimacy to rule on Catalan affairs, and can thus be ignored."

How will Europe react to Cameron? Le Monde delves into the likely reaction in European capitals to Cameron's speech. Here is Philippe Bernard on the complications brought by two of Cameron's demands -- an opt-out from ever-closer union, and rights for non-euro countries:

"Discussions about the eurozone promise to be tricky. Poland might fall into London's camp, as might other countries that fear being harmed by their exclusion from the area. As for the Germans, they could see an opportunity amid this debate to speed up negotiations to integrate eurozone countries. Nor is Berlin hostile to EU treaty renegotiations after 2017, which is also an election year in Germany. Such a commitment, in line with the wishes of London, could be made at the European Council of Dec. 17-18.

"France is not closed to the idea, but finds the timing inconvenient. The debate, which implies further losses of sovereignty, would open during full campaign season for the 2017 elections. ‘The French say they want to negotiate, but not with a British gun to their head,' a diplomat offers. The same difficulties surround predictions about the fate of the clause on ‘ever closer union.' Some countries see this as a symbol, but others, such as Belgium, are very attached to the idea of â??â??federalism."


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