The end of Italy's political crisis marks another step in what is now a creeping rather than historic compromise, trying ruling Christian Democrats closer to the powerful Communist Party.
The outcome, widely forecast even before the fall of Premier Giulio Andreotti's government in January, raises the political profile of italy's second largest party. But again, as widely forecast early in the winter, the deal falls short of placing Communist ministers in the Cabinets.
The party had made ministerial posts a nominal condition of renewed support for Andreotti. But Italians understood that this was for public consumption. Anyone - including American journalists - asking members of the party Politburo like Giorgio Napolitano was readily told that the Communists would settle for less.
The affair underlines the message that Olof Palme, then the Swedish premier, gave a skeptical henry Kissinger two years ago. Stable government in Italy, Palme said, rests on the participation of workers' representatives in decision making. For better or worse, the Communist Party has the strongest claim to that role in Italy.
In northern Europe, workers and unions are mostly found in Social Democratic or Labor parties. In Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Britain and West Germany, these parties not only take part in decision making but actually exercise power more often than not. But in italy, the Socialists are little more than a splinter. Communists run the biggest unions and get the most worker votes.
Palme's prescription for stability was not based merely on abstract notions of political science or democracy. In an age of combined economic stagnation and inflation, the northern Europeans have learned - some the hard way - that the difficult battle against rising prices can be sustained only with the assent of workers and their unions. If they are exiled from power, they are unlikely to accept vitally needed measures of wage restraint.
Outside Italy, there is little appreciation of how far the creeping compromise has reached. Every board whose members must be approved by parliament now contains a proportionate share of Communists.
So, RAI, the Italian state television and radio, has four Communists among its 17 directors. Communists sit on the High Council of Justice, the Constitutional Court and even the board of the Biennale Festival in venice.
All this is apart from the better-publicized Communist office holders in Bologna and other cities where the party has won local elections.
For many Italians, then, the prospect of Communist ministers at the national level is an endurable prospect. But not yet.
The settlement reached Wednesday in Rome raises awkward questions for Washington. Even before Andreotti fell, the State Department publicly voiced its opposiion to Communists in government.
In the eyes of respected Italian conservatives, Washington had raised a classic red herring. Participation - in the sense of ministries - was never a serious question.
The most charitable explanation holds that Washington's intervention reflected the artificial constraints placed on Ambassador Richard Gardner. He does not meet Communists except at official functions; informal talks are carried on only by a first secretary. So, it could argued, Gardner simply did not know that the Communists had no intention of pressing ministerial demands.
A less charitable explanation holds that Washington's statement was exclusively for domestic consumption, a classic reflection of the maxim that foreign policy is other people's internal politics.
The stern public statement, in this view, was aimed at 25 million Italo-Americans, staunchly anti-communist and swinging uneasily between the Republic and Democratic parties.
Washington's move delighted some younger, rightist Christian Democratic politicians who fear that creeping compromise will freeze them out of top posts indefinitely. Indeed, this group was described by one important American diplomat as the hope of Italy's future.
Apart from this small band, the statement and its essential irrelevance, has dismayed many Italians, some of them conservative friends of the United States. They are saying that Gardner's mission is now compromised and that U.S. prestige in Italy has suffered another blow.