Reconciliation for Schröder and Berlusconi

We’ve been following this story in EuroSavant: the war-of-words between Italy and Germany that sprung up shortly after Silvio Berlusconi took up the EU presidency at the beginning of June and, following his inaugural speech before the European Parliament, declared in the heat of accusation and counter-accusation that German MEP Martin Schulz would make a good Nazi concentration camp Kapo in an Italian film currently under production. Italian Minister for the Economy and Tourism Stefano Stefani followed this up with some unkind words about German tourists in Italy, whereupon German Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder decided not to join their ranks this summer, as he usually does. (Apparently he simply stayed home and vacationed in Hannover, where he is from – a particularly appropriate choice in light of the millions of his countrymen, and others across the EU, forced to do the same thing by financial considerations in this year-of-recession 2003.)

And then, as I reported here, a good excuse cropped up for Schröder to return to Italy: the mayor of the northern Italian city of Verona invited him to join European Commission president Romano Prodi there last Friday (22 August) for a performance of the opera “Carmen” at the famous Veronese “Arena” opera-house He also invited Silvio Berlusconi for the same performance, and Berlusconi accepted the invitation.

Good news: the meeting between and Schröder and Berlusconi in Verona did happen last weekend, and it was full of talk of reconciliation. Strangely, though, it did not happen on a trilaterial basis together with Romano Prodi, and it did not happen at the opera performance on Friday night. At the last moment, Berlusconi cancelled his attendance there; instead, he met with Schröder the following day, Saturday the 23rd, for a working breakfast, after which the two leaders emerged to talk with reporters.

A good account of these happenings is given in the FT Deutschland, but under the headline Berlusconi sagt ‘Operngipfel’ ab – Berlusconi cancels “Opera summit.” Why did he do that? The FT Deutschland simply repeats the explanation relayed by Schröder press spokesman Bela Anda, namely that Berlusconi didn’t want to put up with the demonstrations he had learned were being planned for his appearance at the opera. Schröder himself wrote it all off as being due to “internal Italian matters,” and promised “We’ll see each other tomorrow.”

That they did, and in the FT Deutschland‘s account the two men spoke mainly at their news conference about the state of Italian-German relations. Having those relations in a good state is “essential,” according to Schröder: “We don’t have to love each other, but it’s enough if we respect each other.” Furthermore, the Bundeskanzler declared his personal relations with Berlusconi to have emerged unharmed from the antics of the past summer. Later, emerging from a follow-on meeting with Prodi, he commented on the draft EU Constitution, expressing his desire that it be ready for signing in Rome by the end of the Italian EU presidency in December, and urging EU governments to leave the draft alone, free from amendment.

Die Welt also covers this happy end to the Berlusconi-Schröder saga (as the FAZ, for instance, does not, at least not on-line), and in fact splits its reporting into two articles. One, entitled Verona, discusses the “spectacle” surrounding the canceled meeting at the Verona opera house, while Versöhnliche Töne beim Frühstüchsgifpel in Verona – or “Conciliatory Tones at the Breakfast-Summit in Verona” – discusses the substance of the two premiers’ pronouncements.

In the former article, Die Welt writer Dietrich Alexander goes further into what could have prompted Berlusconi to call off so suddenly his joint appearance at the performance of “Carmen.” Perhaps it was out of fear for demonstrators – of being whistled at derisively by his own countrymen in the presence of the foreign guest – but it could also have been due to Romano Prodi, who after all is Berlusconi’s great political rival and from the left side of Italian politics while Berlusconi is on the right. Prodi’s current position as EU Commission president really doesn’t allow him much time or room to actively maneuver against Berlusconi on the Italian political stage – but of course he’s not going to hold that position forever. So Berlusconi’s last-minute cancellation can be interpreted as a refusal to bolster Prodi’s political stock by giving him an implicit public endorsement. Schröder, however, might have then crossed up Berlusconi by scheduling a meeting the following day with Prodi, after the breakfast-meeting scheduled with Berlusconi – and by saying things after that meeting with Prodi of just as much interest to the public as what was said after the meeting with Berlusconi.

After the breakfast-meeting, for all the happy harmony, Die Welt still succeeds in detecting remaining areas of disagreement between the two men. Of almost trivial significance: Berlusconi refused talk of any restoration of Italian-German relations to their former good level, saying that they had never gone bad in the first place. Schröder, on the other hand, spoke of the clearing-away of “the one or other other irritation” heretofore present in the relations between the two countries.

Of rather more interest: On the subject of the draft EU Constitution, while both sides agreed that negotiations at the EU special session beginning in October should conclude by the end of the year, so that the definitive constitution can be signed by all current and prospective EU governments, it seems that Berlusconi still has a change or two in mind to that document. Schröder, on the other hand, immediately put forward his view that the Constitution “should be concluded without any changes,” for admitting even one change would open up a “Pandora’s Box” of proposed changes from all sides.

I find this last to be the most important conclusion to take out of this incident. Italian-German relations are fine again: that’s good, but it is overbalanced by far by the German Chancellor’s seeming attitude that the draft of the EU Constitution as devised by the Convention lead by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is good enough, and that everyone should accept it without amendment. Many in the EU strongly disagree with this position; it promises fireworks at the EU special session that even collective invitations to an opera performance – even if attended by all invitees – won’t be able to calm.

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