Obituary: Emilio Colombo / Helped rebuild Italy after Mussolini

April 11, 1920 - June 24, 2013

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Emilio Colombo, a stalwart Italian politician who held top government positions for nearly five decades and led his country as prime minister in the early 1970s, died June 24 in Rome. He was 93.

The Italian news agency ANSA reported his death but did not give a specific cause.

Mr. Colombo ranked among the most prominent leaders of the Christian Democrats, the party that dominated Italian politics for decades after the fall of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Dubbed the "lay cardinal" for his religious fervor and political savvy, Mr. Colombo was elected to Parliament in his 20s and reportedly was the last surviving member of the constituent assembly that abolished the Italian monarchy after World War II and reframed the nation as a constitutional republic.

He steadily rose through the party ranks and headed the ministries of agriculture, foreign trade, industry and treasury before becoming prime minister in 1970. After 18 months in office -- his was the 32nd government to be formed since the end of the war -- he served twice as foreign minister. A decade ago, Mr. Colombo was named a senator for life.

He made perhaps his greatest impact on the Italian economy, helping the country to emerge from postwar devastation and become a major player in the world market.

Mr. Colombo was often forced to confront the problem of inflation. He supported radical austerity measures such as tax increases and taxes on luxury items, arguing that the alternative would be more painful.

He was an early and outspoken proponent of European unity and was credited with drafting much of the Treaty of Rome, the agreement that created the European Economic Community in the late 1950s. That organization has been described as a forerunner to the European Union.

Throughout his career, but particularly as prime minister, Mr. Colombo was forced to contend with the political infighting that caused many governments to fail. Despite the strength of the Italian Communist Party, he did not support its inclusion in a governing coalition.

"We are separated by deep and substantial differences in the conception of the state and the individual," he said in 1971. "The center-left is very far from having exercised its entire potential. There is therefore not even a small opening for Communist entry into the government."

Neither, in his view, was there room for what he called the "infantile extremism" stoked by the right wing. At a time when political debate included fisticuffs and when strikes and protests threatened the economy, Mr. Colombo was known as a voice of moderation. In domestic matters, he helped broker a divisive political compromise that resulted in the legalization of divorce.

In 1972, his government fell apart when the Republican Party withdrew its support. Mr. Colombo was succeeded by Giulio Andreotti and remained in government, serving in various Cabinet-level positions, including foreign minister. He supported diplomatic relations with China and devoted particular attention to strengthening his country's relationship with the United States.

Emilio Colombo was born April 11, 1920, in the town of Potenza, in the southern region of Basilicata. He first became involved in politics through the Catholic Action youth group, held leadership positions at the group's national level and received a law degree from the University of Rome.

After his election to the Chamber of Deputies, Mr. Colombo served as undersecretary of agriculture. Later, as minister of agriculture, he was credited with improving the economy and infrastructure in his native South.

After being made a senator for life, Mr. Colombo was implicated in a drug investigation involving members of elite Italian society. News outlets reported that he told prosecutors he had used cocaine for "therapeutic purposes" and for a period of about a year. In his admission, he defended his bodyguards, who had been arrested in connection with the investigation.

According to The Associated Press, the Italian Senate censured prosecutors for improperly wiretapping Mr. Colombo's phones and providing his name to the news media. Mr. Colombo was not arrested.

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