Tuesday, July 08, 2003

The Berlusconi reality show

A week into Italy’s presidency of the EU, there are two fundamental keys to understanding Silvio Berlusconi’s disastrous debut on 2 July. The first is the personal, almost psychological insight that the explosion gave us. Here is a man who is unable to control his anger and pique, who is unable to take harsh criticism but has learnt that he can vent his anger less dangerously by covering it with a veneer of “humour”.

The second key is in the actual words which provoked Berlusconi’s insults. The brouhaha which followed the “Nazi” attack has nicely obfuscated the substance of Martin Schulz’s initial attack which covered a number of important issues both for Mr. Berlusconi personally and for Europe.

First, the events: on Wednesday 2 July, Mr. Berlusconi delivered the opening speech of the Italian presidency to the European Parliament. It was 11 pages long and covered the semester’s agenda. Almost all of it was predictable and uncontroversial: agreement in the Convention leading to the signature of a European Constitution; preparation for next year’s enlargement of the EU and planning for further enlargement; a major public works and infrastructure programme to relaunch the Union’s flagging economy; cooperation on security measures to combat terrorism and illegal immigration.

He did not go into detail about the constitution which would certainly have rubbed someone up the wrong way. He did not mention enlarging the EU to include Russia and Israel as he had before. Only the very vigilant noticed a couple of omissions which were more substantial; no reference to combating racism at the same time as illegal immigration and no mention of confiscation of criminals’ assets as part of the Union-wide justice deal. Both points were in previous EU policy statements.

One of the replies came from Martin Schulz, head of the European Socialist Party group at the EP. Schulz asked Mr. Berlusconi explicit questions on all these issues which are European problems certainly not just Italian ones. The language was tough but Parliamentary and the substance of the criticism was wholly relevant to the European Parliament.

Instead of replying to the criticism or avoiding the questions as most politicians do, Berlusconi went for the man, not the ball. The attack had been against Berlusconi’s political and judicial position and his statement of European objectives and was couched in Parliamentary language. The counterattack was personal and unparliamentary.

Now the whys.

First the personal side. In 1993 Berlusconi exploded with real anger when a foreign journalist pressed him at a press conference he was giving with Gianfranco Fini, then candidate for mayor of Rome. Since then he has kept his temper under control but only by smiling while he delivers the insult as he did last Wednesday. As CEO of Fininvest, as leader of Forza Italia and the House of Liberties and as Prime Minister, he is unused to being criticised and when someone dares, Berlusconi lashes out against the presumed lesè majesté. On top of this, he has little sense of function and role. If I swear at a motorist who tries to knock me off the road, it is maybe uncontrolled behaviour but acceptable for most people. If I swear at a student who is being provocative, that is wholly improper. It is wholly improper for the President of the EU to insult an MEP in the Parliament and then refuse to apologise. But Mr. Berlusconi still insists that he is the injured party.

On the substance side, the issues are serious. As Mario Pirani pointed out (Repubblica 4 July ‘03: 1&17) it was not only Schulz’s immunity taunts which maddened Berlusconi but the very clear questions about him and his allies. EU statements about controlling illegal immigration have always been accompanied by proposals for measures to curb racism. Berlusconi’s speech had no such reference while his Minister for Reforms, Umberto Bossi, has been making some very offensive remarks which would not be tolerated from Le Pen or Haider, let alone a member of the cabinet of the EU’s presidency.

Directly relevant to Berlusconi were the questions on EU cooperation over justice. Roberto Castelli, the Leghista Minister of Justice said in Il Giornale (30 June) that there was a “wide-ranging plot” against Berlusconi which included the proposals for cooperation on European justice: “the European arrest warrant, freezing and confiscation of goods belonging to physical or legal entities”. “It is not difficult,” Castelli added allusively, “to imagine which Italian company will be the first to be investigated.” He presumably meant Berlusconi’s Mediaset.

The underlying intentions behind the measures are to deal with cross-border crime both normal and political: mafia, drugs, money laundering and international terrorism. For Castelli and implicitly Berlusconi to think that all this fuss is just in order to get Mediaset is not so much paranoia as arrogance. But Berlusconi’s over-reaction and “Nazi” insult do show how close to bone Shulz went.

For the next 5 months and 3 weeks, Europe will be looking very carefully at any, but any, measure which might benefit the EU’s President and his companies.

If all this talk about conflict of interest and parliamentary insults bore you, go to the Italian presidency’s website where the really pressing issues are analysed and debated. There is a section called Vostre opinioni; given events in the first week, one might expect an interesting and heated exchange. No way. There is only one subject that you can express your opinion on - the burning issue which divides the continent - should there be a one euro note? Happily for decision-makers, the 2,730 who responded showed near consensus, 50.51% in favour, 47.69 against and the rest don’t know.

Next week:
“Now is the time to bury bad news… about news” or how to bounce through media reform when everyone is looking the other way.


God bless Silvio: why the left needs Berlusconi.


Scandals in politics: what is the Telekom Serbia scandal all about?

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