Sunday, June 13, 2004

European Dream

The headline in one of yesterday’s papers warmed the heart of the most disillusioned Europhile: “Il sogno europeo” it read, across the the whole eight columns; Monnet and Schuman I thought of, even the toilers of today, Giscard and the Constitution, Pat Cox, the most respectable Speaker of the outgoing European Parliament, or Javier Solana and Chris Patten who in their different ways have tried to strengthen the weakest of the European links, foreign policy.

No such luck – that sogno, the dream referred to an obviously much more profound instinct in Italy and elsewhere: football. Fourteen countries are taking part in the European Cup and four of them are not even in the EU. The first match was yesterday and I have no doubt the competition will excite more Europeans this week than the EP elections.

Still, there were some busy dreamers in Europe last week which is more than enough to cue me into a new blog series.

Two of them, George Bush and Silvio Berlusconi were pounding the election trail while trying to maintain the appearance of responsible world leaders.

Mr. Berlusconi is fighting not just today’s election (which almost certainly won’t actually change his position as prime minister); he’s preparing for next year’s regional elections and national elections probably in May 2006. Mr. Bush has his eye firmly fixed on November. Both have very uncertain poll ratings.

The American President can be happy with his day and a half in Italy. True, there was criticism from both the Pope and President Ciampi but predictably it was muted and oblique, a general appeal to respect international law and institutions. This could have been taken either as a reproach for Bush’s past actions or an encouragement to pursue his present policy of using the UN to deal with the Iraqi quagmire. Spin either way. In any case the pictures were moving and not only for American Catholic voters; they did not show the raised Vatican eyebrows at the President’s lack of punctuality, a very minor glitch in an effective ceremony.

His speeches celebrating the liberation of Rome on 4 June 1944 finessed the differences with the “liberation” of Baghdad last year without labouring the similarities while the anti-Bush demonstration hardly touched the American domestic audience, another plus.

Add the other events, a quasi-rapprochement with Chirac in Normandy, the unanimous approval of the Anglo-American UN resolution, no serious disagreements at the G8 summit and the self-donned mantle of Ronal Reagan, and we can reckon that it was a good week for George W.

On the face of it, so it was for Silvio Berlusconi. He was almost centre stage while Bush was in Rome, a week before the elections and he could look forward to the G8 which soothed the sting of not being invited to Normandy, taken as a personal snub from Chirac. Then in mid-week, the godsend (or some said, in this country of conspiracy theorists, the carefully stage managed event); the liberation of the three Italian hostages in Iraq. Berlusconi ruled the airwaves; it was he that gave the go-ahead for the operation, it was he that was in control of the situation giving live interviews from his plane in mid-Atlantic and from Georgia. As one commentator put it “he did everything but appear in battle dress”.

He has said confidently that whatever happens in today’s elections, he will not resign as Prime Minister (as Massimo D’Alema did in 2000 when the centre-left lost in the regional elections). In any case, he says, Forza Italia will poll more than the 25% they took in the last European elections.

An yet clearly he is actually rattled; he is a candidate in all five constituencies though he has made it clear that he will not take up his seat in Strasbourg. The ploy is obvious enough; this is a referendum on Silvio Berlusconi. He will of course win more votes than any other candidate but if it is not a massive affirmation, then the boomerang will hit him on the head.

As much as losing to the centre-left, he is a afraid of losing ground within the centre-right coalition. He has already said that there will be a cabinet reshuffle after the elections (“strengthening the team” is his euphemism) which could give much more influence to Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale or Follini’s UDC.

Even the hostage release which should have been pure good news Berlusconi has already become muddied; the Government has been accused of paying a $9m. ransom for their release. Few voters will have changed from left to right because of the release but potential centre-right voters might actually turn out to vote. Others might switch to Forza Italia from one of the other centre-right parties. To try and increase turnout, Mr. Berlusconi’s office sent text messages to every single cellphone in the country on Friday and yesterday. With Mr. Berlusconi a candidate, the charge of illicit electioneering has been flying. In Italy, all forms of campaigning are prohited from Friday midnight.

Yesterday when he went to vote, Mr. Berlusconi added even more fuel to the fire as he gave an impromptu election speech. Not surprisingly, he annoyed the opposition but he infuriated his allies by saying that Italians should not vote for “small parties”.

He sounds like a worried man but we will have to wait till late tonight to see if Italy is suffering from Berlusconi fatigue, and before then, as a good European, I must go and vote.