July 02, 2003

Berlusconiwatch: part MCXVII

Kevin Drum rightly describes Berlusconi’s outburst in the European Parliament as “disgusting.” It’s also an act of very considerable political stupidity. The context: Italy has just taken over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, which revolves among the member states in strict rotation. In theory, it’s sitting in the catbird seat of European politics. But the Presidency’s powers are limited - it can set the agenda of European politics, but it has to persuade the other member states to accept this agenda. Italy was already likely to have diminished influence - most other government leaders regard Berlusconi, with some justification, as a self-interested crook. At one point, it looked as though Berlusconi was going to be convicted while Italy held the Presidency of the Council, which would have led to quite enormous diplomatic embarrassment. But then Berlusconi got a bill passed that would grant him immunity while in office. The president of Italy, and other neutral powerbrokers, reluctantly assented to this bill, hoping that it would minimize the damage to Italy’s international reputation. While the bill will be challenged in the courts (it appears on the face of it to be unconstitutional), the challenge won’t go through until long after Italy has given up the Presidency.

These hopes are now in tatters. Berlusconi has not only managed to reinvigorate European debates about whether he’s fit for office; he’s insulted Germany, the most powerful state in the European Union, in the most offensive manner possible. And Germany isn’t taking this lightly; according to La Repubblica, the German govenrment has summoned the Italian ambassador to provide “clarification.” Which is pretty nasty stuff in diplomatic-speak; I don’t remember the last time that it has happened between two EU member states. An unnamed spokesman for the German government (my guess is that it’s Schroeder’s spokesman) says (my translation)

Berlusconi’s comments at Strasbourg, in response to the speech of the Socialist MEP from Germany, Martin Schulz, are unacceptable, and will be responded to by the German government.

This promises to create an almighty political mess. Berlusconi has issued a half-hearted apology, saying that he’s sorry “if he offended the German people,” but claiming that he was provoked. That’s clearly not going to be enough for the German government, which can be expected to prove intransigent on EU matters of interest to Italy for the forseeable future. Berlusconi had hoped that the new European Constitution would be signed in Rome during his term of office, with associated kudos. Fat chance of that now.

It’s also leading to a test of strength between the institutions of the EU. The President of the Socialist party in the Parliament is painting this as a grave crisis in Parliament-Council relations, saying that Berlusconi needs to issue a formal apology to the Parliament on behalf of the Council. If the Parliament gets this formal apology (don’t hold your breath), it’ll be a major precedent - the Parliament will have succeeded in holding the Council accountable for its actions - just like a normal Parliament does. Even if the Parliament doesn’t get its way, it will very likely try to push this as far as it can. The Parliament’s current President, Pat Cox, is the same guy who engineered the en-masse resignation of the European Commission some years back, when he was head of the European Liberals. Cox knows how to use political crises to augment Parliament’s powers.

Finally, it may create a minor crisis within the Italian government, La Repubblica is claiming that Berlusconi is getting no support from his party’s allies, with the exception of the Lega (a regionalist party based in Northern Italy). Even Gianfranco Fini, the government’s deputy leader, whose National Alliance party is a direct descentant of Mussolini’s Fascists, has dissociated himself from the comments.

However, no-one who has been accused of being a fascist can justify the [use of] the epithet of Nazi kapo for a political enemy. On a human level, I understand, but I do not share the obstinacy with which President Berlusconi has defended his words.

A few weeks ago, Berlusconi defended himself from his enemies by claiming that his fight against the judiciary was an effort to protect Italy’s international standing. To state matters in the mildest terms possible, it’ll be hard for him to maintain that claim.

For previous posts of mine on Berlusconi, go here.

Update: Corriere della Serra has a good round-up of quotes from political figures in Italy.

Posted by Henry at July 2, 2003 03:23 PM | TrackBack

I can only recommend to look at the video stream of Berlusconi making his “ironic” remark. It’s the masterly work of a charming populist: he looks and sounds like he just made a compliment. And what a smile.

Real video 56K or broadband (the links at the top):


Posted by: Chris K at July 2, 2003 05:58 PM

>>I can only recommend to look at the video stream of Berlusconi making his “ironic” remark. It’s the masterly work of a charming populist: he looks and sounds like he just made a compliment

Really? I couldn’t help being reminded of Orwell’s remark on Beaverbrook “it is hard to imagine anyone looking more like a monkey on a stick who was not doing it on purpose”.

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