A troubled start

Print edition : August 01, 2003

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at a press conference following his speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on July 2. - CHRISTIAN LUTZ/ AP

By calling a German member of the European Parliament a Nazi guard, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi commits a diplomatic gaffe on assuming the presidency of the European Union at a crucial stage of its development.

THE current six-month term (from July 1) of the European Union's (E.U.) rotating presidency got off to a sensational start. On day two of the Italian semester of the E.U. presidency, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi created the country's worst post-War diplomatic crisis with Germany, one of the powerful members of the E.U. Berlusconi described a German Social Democrat Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Martin Schultz, as a perfect candidate for the role of a Nazi concentration camp guard - "kapo" - in a film. Berlusconi told Schultz, "I know there is a producer in Italy who is making a film on the Nazi concentration camps. I'll suggest you for the role. You'd be perfect." The gaffe was made when Schultz asked the Italian Premier about his use of a recent immunity law in Italy to avoid facing trial on corruption charges during a question-answer session after Berlusconi's speech launching his presidency.

Berlusconi's remark provoked an uproar with Socialist, Greens and Liberal Democrat deputies demanding an official apology to both Schultz and the European Parliament. Berlusconi rejected Parliament President Pat Cox's suggestion that he retract his remarks. The matter had all the makings of a full-blown crisis, with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder demanding a formal apology. Cox said of the incident, "I've been in Parliament since 1989 and I've been through 29 presidencies and I will always remember this one, but not for the right reason."

Earlier, as Berlusconi addressed the European Parliament, several deputies were on their feet displaying placards saying, "The law is equal for all". The allusion was to a law passed in June by the Italian Parliament giving legal immunity to high-ranking state officials like the President, the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament. In effect, it allows Berlusconi to avoid a corruption trial for the alleged bribing of judges. The immunity covers crimes and misdemeanours even from the period prior to holding office. A Milan court has suspended the trial of Berlusconi following the passage of the controversial Bill through Italy's Lower House of Parliament, where the Prime Minister's Centre-Right coalition holds a majority. The major leftist Opposition parties boycotted the vote.

Two days after his remarks in the European Parliament, bowing to widespread criticism, Berlusconi said he was sorry for the incident if it offended anyone. After a telephone talk with him, Schroeder declared the matter closed. But some damage had been done. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said Berlusconi should have retracted his remarks immediately. Luxembourg Premier Jan Claude Juncker described the remarks as shocking and unacceptable. The German paper Berliner Zeitung wrote: "That's Silvio Berlusconi in a nutshell. You don't need to know anything more about him." The daily Die Welt ran the headline, "Unacceptable" and wondered: "And this man is supposed to represent the European Union?" Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh remarked that if the E.U. leaders had been able to elect a longer-term Chairman of their European Council, as proposed in a draft Constitution, they would not have picked the Italian leader. "Unfortunately he has six months in the chair ahead of him," Lindh said.

Berlusconi reacted as if Schultz' reference to his legal problems came as the last straw after much adverse comment in the European press in the period leading up to Italy's assumption of the E.U. presidency. The German daily Frankfurter Zeitung wrote that Berlusconi "quickly loses his self-control and partially takes leave of his senses". It asked: "This poses a real risk for the entire European Union, for how will he react when he is really stressed, for example in international crises?"

European Union deputies hold up placards reading "The same law for all", accusing Berlusconi of perverting justice.-GERARD CERLES/ AFP

The criticism in the European press of diverse political opinion ranging from liberal to conservative has centred on the persona of Berlusconi and the "anomaly" he represents in the context of European political culture. As Italy's richest man, at the head of a vast business empire, Berlusconi combines in himself an interweaving of private interests and public authority in a scale and manner that Europe has never known before. He has refused to resolve the conflict of interests by giving up control of his businesses after becoming Prime Minister because this tangled web of private interest and public power is precisely the key to his electoral and political success.

Berlusconi has a near-monopoly of the television media in Italy, exercising a degree of control that is unprecedented for Italy, as well as for any other E.U. country. His company controls three commercial TV channels, and by virtue of being the head of government he has control over the three channels of the national broadcaster, RAI. His media empire includes Italy's largest publishing house, Mondadori, and various newspapers and magazines.

A series of laws in Italy since Berlusconi assumed office in 2001 have reinforced the argument that he is using politics to protect his private interests. The latest of these gives legal immunity to high-ranking public officials while they are in office. Other laws, such as the ones on letters rogatory concerning judicial cooperation with Switzerland, and on false accounting, had earlier effected changes in the Italian criminal law with clear implications for cases against Berlusconi and his associates of alleged wrong-doing. Berlusconi and his firm Fininvest have been investigated through much of the last decade in Italy for offences such as false accounting and bribing tax officers and judges.

Besides, Berlusconi, along with some of his political allies, has engaged in a campaign against the judiciary. He has publicly criticised judges for handing down sentences on the basis of "false evidence", saying he is the victim of a political campaign by Left-wing judges.

Early last year, the Italian government was at loggerheads with the rest of the E.U. over the question of a European arrest warrant (Frontline, February 1, 2002). Under the proposed pact, any E.U. country would be obliged to hand over suspects in cases involving a range of defined crimes to any other member-state without having to resort to complex and lengthy extradition processes. Italians threatened to veto the proposal unless it was limited to a few offences, excluding crimes such as fraud and corruption. Italy's isolated opposition at the time gave the impression that it was an attempt to protect Berlusconi, because a Spanish judge was reportedly exploring the possibility of pressing charges of financial wrongdoing involving Berlusconi's business activities in Spain.

In the eyes of many in Europe, Berlusconi has emerged bigger than the law of the land, adept in using his parliamentary majority to safeguard himself against prosecution. Hence the widespread doubts about his appropriateness to hold the E.U. presidency, an entity created by a treaty between states and governed by precisely defined rules.

European Parliament member from Germany Martin Schultz, whom Berlusconi compared to a Nazi concentration camp guard.-CHRISTIAN LUTZ/ AP

The "anomaly" of Berlusconi in Europe consists in the culture that he has brought into politics - a culture that derives from his dual identity as an entrepreneur and the leader of a political party (Forza Italia) that is now in government. Critics say he runs the party and the country like one of his business interests.

In selling the image of Berlusconi, his control over the media plays a crucial role. The daily La Repubblica described the phenomenon as "charismatic populism" where the "Premier is more like a boss". In contrast, the European situation, according to La Repubblica, "is different from the puppet theatre of domesticated politics, where the foreign newspapers judge the Berlusconian anomaly for what it is, as distinct from Italian newspapers."

Berlusconi's governing coalition includes the neo-fascist National Alliance led by Gianfranco Fini. Under Fini, the National Alliance has been reinventing itself as the new Right, putting behind its fascist past. Berlusconi's controversial remarks in the European Parliament hugely embarrassed Fini, who was by his side. He later issued a strong criticism of Berlusconi's comments.

The other member of the governing coalition is the far-Right Northern League led by Umberto Bossi, whose anti-Europe and anti-immigrant comments have caused consternation in many E.U. countries.

The Italian presidency comes at a crucial stage in the E.U.'s development. Berlusconi is looking forward to the Inter-Governmental Conference to be held before the end of the year for the final negotiations on a draft constitution for the E.U. A first draft has already been submitted. France and Germany generally back the text. Britain and Spain are among those who seek amendments to safeguard against losing power. Britain is against ceding sovereign rights to a "federal super state", while Germany is at the forefront for closer unity.

At the international level, the Iraq war unleashed serious divisions within the E.U. and strained America's relations with member-states like France and Germany. The Italian government backed the United States' stand on Iraq; Berlusconi has good relations with both U.S. President George Bush and British Premier Tony Blair. He is in a position to heal the rift between the E.U. and the Bush administration, and the subject is expected to be on top of his agenda.

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