Friday, January 02, 2004

Looking back, looking forward.

Italian Politics in the new and old years

Iraq, Berlusconi’s legal trials and perhaps tribulations, the European Parliamentary elections and Prodi’s return.

Certainly, no one can complain that Italian politics were boring last year.

There was the war, of course, which produced some nifty acrobatics and some unlikely alliances. In the build-up the Prime Minister had veered from supporting the American interventionist policy after seeing Mr. Bush at his ranch in Texas to supporting diplomacy after conversations with Mr. Putin.

As the invasion drew closer, Mr. Berlusconi took a free ride, using the Constitution as a shield to avoid committing Italian forces at the same time as giving verbal support to Messrs. Bush and Blair. Unlike his friend José Maria Aznar, he did not even have to decide on which way to vote in the UN Security Council as Italy was not a member. Obviously the Prime Minister did not spell out Italy’s refusal to commit troops; the Constitution is not wholly pacifist and does allow Italy to take part in legally sanctioned wars as happened in the 1991 Gulf War. The implication this time was that Government lawyers reckoned there was insufficient legal foundation for going to war. Far from condemning the Prime Minister for being two-faced, many Italians, not only Government supporters, reckoned that he was being an able and furbo player.

In any case, there was certainly insufficient political support; coalition allies were lukewarm and most of the country was strongly against the war. The result was the improbable linking of arms between nuns and no-globals, former anti-clericals and cardinals plus a good sprinkling of secular and moderates of all colours, much like in the rest of Europe and some of the US.

As it turned out, Italian intervention in the post-war occupation was far more bloody than anyone had dared predict. Nineteen carabinieri, soldiers and civilians died in a suicide bomb attack in Nasiriya in November. It was also a surprise to see how the Italian tricolour appeared at windows almost as much as the rainbow peace flag had in the previous months. Often the two flags flew from the same balcony. Previously non-nationalistic Italians discovered the patria. It was a moment high on emotion and patriotism but low on debate as to what the forces are doing in Iraq.

Obviously, Iraq is not a problem which is going to go away; the debate will, or may, begin when the mandate to keep the troops deployed comes up for renewal or if there are more deaths. A year ago, Iraq looked like a political minefield for Berlusconi but despite the real bomb in Nasiriya, he has managed to avoid any political responsibility.

Not so with the EU Presidency; there the furbizia brought few prizes and to tell you the truth, apart from the final Intergovernmental Conference in Brussels last month, the problem was not slyness. On the contrary, once again Mr. Berlusconi showed how seriously he is affected by foot-in-mouth disease. His outburst at the very beginning when he called the German MEP Martin Schulz a kapò has been replayed endlessly since then by delighted tv editors (apart from in Italy, of course). Deputy prime minister Gianfranco Fini was sitting next him at the time and his expression of despairing embarassment says more than any words.

His diplomacy was personal as ever, disturbing enough for a democracy like Italy, relatively powerful in its own right but downright improper for the EU. Once again, he defended his friend Valdimir, suggesting that Russian action in Chechnya was the right policy. Turkey too where Berlusconi was the honoured guest at the Prime Minister’s daughter’s wedding, was given unconditioned commitment. Ditto Isreal’s decision to build the fence. Pity that the EU’s position (and even the US’s for the fence) is highly critical on all these issues.

In the final IGC, Berlusconi promised he would pull a compromise out of the hat at the last minute and save the EU’s draft Constitution. But as a British MEP told the BBC “All Silvio Berlusconi had up his sleeve was a gelato-stained napkin with a few bad jokes scribbled on it”. Chris Patten was even more damning in his reasonableness “A fiasco but not a disaster”. Another anonymous participant said it was the worst-prepared summit that anyone could remember as Mr. B. put on on his “cheeky chappie” air and suggested that they should talk about lighter topics, such as "football and women” (BBC NEWS | Europe | Italy's chaos-prone EU pr... ).

The Italian Presidency is over but the tussles with the EU are bound to continue for all of 2004. Some will be over matters of substance, from milk subsidies to how much support the government can give ailing Italian companies. The more headline-grabbing fights will be between Berlusconi and Romano Prodi as Spring’s European Parliamentary elections approach.

Prodi himself is playing Sisyphus once again as he tries to bring the sniping elements of the Olive Tree Alliance into shape ready for this years Euro elections and Italian elections in 2006 or before when he would like to see himself Prime Minister once again.

The present incumbent told his end of year (two hour, live on prime time) press conference that he was the most popular head of government in Europe and that he would be around in government after the next elections and in politics for another 10 to 15 years.

He’s probably not wrong… unless.

There are a few unlesses but none seem imminent.

There are the rumours about his health but for the moment they are just that, rumours.

Sometime soon in the new year the Constitutional Court will give its verdict on the Immunity Law passed in June to prevent Berlusconi’s trial for bribing a judge from proceeding while he is Prime Minister. If they hold that the law is unconstitutional, then the trial will start again and would certainly reach a verdict within the year. But he has already said that he would not resign even if found guilty. It is after all the trial at first instance and the appeal would take years.

After all that has happened in the Berlusconi era, to have a Prime Minister found guilty of bribery might not even surprise us.

He will have to deal with the Gasparri media bill, turned down by President Ciampi last month. It would have saved his Rete 4 channel (instead a stop-gap decree was passed just before Christmas allowing Rete 4 to continue broadcasting terrestrially for another months) and given him the possibility of expanding his media holdings into print. The alternatives are either a climbdown or a clash with the President, neither very attractive options.

Finally there is the economy; in general, slumbering, with crises like the Parmalat scandal exploding with alarming frequency. This is the real risk for Mr. Berlusconi. Local and EU elections will give us an idea or how serious that risk is but either way, he will not step down.

With all this and a fair chance of Papal conclave, it does not look as if 2004 is going to be boring either.

Next week: “Crying over split milk” and other Parmalat puns.

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