The “Godfather” Takes Up the EU Presidency

It’s July 1, so the half-yearly presidency of the European Union changes hands again (for possibly the second-to-the-last time, if the EU Constitution, which changes this system, is ratified within the first half of 2004 as planned). Good-bye to Greece; ciao to Italy, specifically to Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minster.

Except that there may be a problem. Berlusconi has been having continuing trouble with the Italian courts – right, that sort of trouble, when they think you did something nasty and want to send you off to the slammer for a while. Indeed, he has already been convicted three times for various acts of corruption (perpetrated in his pre-prime minister days, when he was busy accumulating his fortune), but all of these are either under appeal or past the statute of limitations. Then there is his ongoing case in Milan, where he is accused of bribing judges back in the 1980s; one of the judges presiding in that case has come to the end of his term in office and so needs to be replaced, but under normal circumstances that would only give rise to a minor delay.

But these are anything but normal circumstances, when you’re talking about criminal charges against the current head of government. In fact, there may not be a problem anymore, since the Italian parliament passed on June 18 a law making the holders of the top five political posts in Italy – thus including Berlusconi – immune from prosecution while in office. So it seems that he will still have to face up to pending charges once he leaves office – although by then more statute-of-limitation considerations may come into play – but he is free from the hassle until then, including during the imminent Italian EU presidency.

Other European observers see a problem nonetheless. Today EuroSavant returns to Germany for comment – among other reasons, because it’s from there that the most heartfelt cry of dismay at the Italian premier’s new responsibilities has been issued. In fact, it comes from Michael Müller, who is deputy head of the of the SPD faction in the Bundestag. (American readers: Think deputy majority leader in the House of Representatives.) “Berlusconi harms Italy and now also Europe,” Müller wrote yesterday, reports Der Spiegel. “Italy’s head of government undermines the independence of the judiciary, tailors the laws to fit his preferences, makes the state’s interests identical to his own, and subjugates the media. Berlusconi is Corruption personified.” (That last sentence in the original German was Berlusconi ist der Filz in Person. Thanks to my friend Jonas, from Berlin, for help with the translation.) Müller also termed Berlusconi der Raufbold aus Mailand – “the ruffian from Milan.” (Il teppista da Milano, for all you Italians out there; always happy to do my bit for German-Italian relations!) Der Spiegel topped this off by putting Berlusconi on this week’s cover, seated on what looks like a throne, with the words Der Pater – “The Godfather” – superimposed. And there is a raft of other articles about the Italian prime minister in that issue, none particularly complimentary – one details the lack of success Berlusconi has so far had with his business dealings in Germany (with a sigh of relief?).

Yes, I guess it’s not a good thing to have someone who is in so much trouble with his local law, and who at the same time so cynical about doing what it takes to duck the heat, as president of the EU, representing it to the outside world. In particular, he represents it to that part of the “outside world” that is about to become “inside,” i.e. the ten soon-to-be-EU-members, most of whom still have problems when it comes to such things as corruption and the independence of the media. As the EU keeps up its pressure on these states to reform these aspects of their societies, it would be nice to have as president someone from a state with a bit better record in those matters itself.

An article in today’s Die Welt takes the baton from Der Spiegel in the Berlusconi-bashing stakes. Forget his problems in the courts; reporter Andreas Middel is more worried about the effect of the Italian premier’s idiosyncrasies on Italy’s six-month EU presidency. This was the man who, shortly after the September 11 attacks, trumpeted “the superiority of Western culture” over Islam (so much for diplomatic ties with Arab states); who advocates that Turkey, Israel, and – yes – Russia be admitted as EU members as soon as possible (doesn’t have the Union have enough on its plate as it is with the ten states joining next year?); who acted like an attack-dog at a past EU summit to grab the newly-established European Food Safety Authority for Parma over Helsinki (“the Finns don’t even know how one eats ham” he remarked at the time). And it seems he has a serious running feud with the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi. And his agenda for EU affairs for the next six months, writes Middel, is disturbingly murky.

The German press is an interesting place to go for reactions to Berlusconi assuming the EU presidency not only for Michael Müller’s comments, but also in light of what is going on these day in Germany itself. No, of course I don’t refer to any cynical attempt by Bundeskanzler Schröder to pass a law relieving him (if only temporarily) of his legal problems – I don’t believe he has any legal problems, anyway. What he does have is very serious policy problems, especially on the economic front (we’ve covered this before in EuroSavant, here), reflected among other things in the growing German government budget deficit.

That deficit is set to go over 3% of GDP for the next couple of years (at least), for sure, and Schröder and his government are caring less and less about that. (The SPD-Green government just recently decided to try to have planned tax cuts, averaging 10% for all German citizens, moved forward in time to next year.) But they should care about that, you see, because the EU’s “Growth and Stability Pact” says that EU governments aren’t allowed to let their budget deficits grow beyond 3% of GDP; if they do, they’re supposed to be hit with hefty fines from the EU (which, admittedly, makes the budget deficit problem even worse). Ironically, that “Growth and Stability Pact” was something insisted on by Germany, and that in connection with choosing countries which would be allowed to introduce the common European currency, the euro. In particular, Italy was one of the countries at which that “Growth and Stability Pact” was aimed! It’s those irresponsible Latins, you know: they can’t be trusted to put their fiscal house in order, so you need to bind them with a treaty so that, once they have the euro, they don’t go off and borrow up a storm and so endanger Europe’s credit-rating for everyone else. But just look now – ha ha! – it’s Italy that is in fine fiscal shape, and it’s Germany which is tossing aside the very rules that it had earlier insisted on – for others, at least. (For that matter, for all that Americans – especially Texans – think of Mexicans, I’ve little doubt that the Mexican government carries less proportional debt these days than George W. Bush’s administration.)

So maybe Germany, and German government officials and political representatives, might want to be a bit more careful now when they condemn the conduct or the qualifications of their southern EU neighbors. Fortunately, a commentary article by Heinz-Joachim Fischer in yesterday’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung helps restore equilibrium somewhat. Italians, and the Italian parliament, will decide about Berlusconi, Fischer quotes Piero Fassino (Secretary of the PDS, the main left-wing Italian opposition – formerly the Italian Communist Party, but that’s a long story) as saying; Fassino adds that, in so doing, Italians do not need “polemic help from national and international media, from foreign governments and even from the justice system.” Besides, Fischer writes, the upturn in Italy’s economy that has already occurred during Berlusconi’s two years in power makes most Italians feel that they aren’t being governed badly at all. Finally, this second half of 2003 is shaping up to be an important period for the EU – among other reasons, because of the Intergovernmental Conference starting in October, which is supposed to reconcile the differing viewpoints of all fifteen-plus-ten governments about the draft EU Constitution to produce a final version that can be offered for ratification in the spring. Indeed, the Italians are ambitiously dreaming of a second “Treaty of Rome” (second, that is, to the Treaty of Rome of 1957 which originally established the European Economic Community, forerunner to the EU), signed in the Italian capital at the EU summit there scheduled for December. But that means winding up the work at that Intergovernmental Conference in two short months – a goal many (including myself) regard as wishful thinking.

Still, let the Italians get to work on that, Fischer writes; stop bugging them about the nature of the man they elected to lead them.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Comments are closed.