-  Saturday 15 August 2020

EU unlikely to shed many tears for a defeated Berlusconi

March 21 2006
If Silvio Berlusconi fails to get re-elected as Italian prime minister next month, there will be few tears shed in Brussels or in many other national capitals of the European Union. He has done little to endear himself to his fellow government leaders since he started attending EU summits, and much to exasperate them. The greatest regret is likely to be in London, where Tony Blair, UK prime minister, is probably his best European friend.

If Romano Prodi is elected at the head of his unwieldy left-of- centre coalition, however, the cheering is still likely to be subdued. He will certainly be seen as a "better European" than his rival, not least because he was president of the European Commission, but the chances of his implementing a radical programme to tackle the profound problems of the Italian economy are seen as slight.

On the other hand, if Mr Berlusconi does defy the opinion polls and returns to office, no one expects him to reverse the trend of recent years that has seen Italy become less influential in European debates than it has been for many years. Both in style and in inclination, the Italian prime minister has failed to engage effectively in the big issues, such as the EU constitutional debate, economic reform, future financing or foreign policy.

"Italy is essentially invisible on the European stage," according to one close observer. "Rome has been irrelevant in most major debates. But Mr Berlusconi has shown he can cause trouble with special national pleading."

Most of the headlines the Italian prime minister has attracted have been for his undiplomatic showmanship, as when he launched the last Italian presidency in the European parliament in 2003 by suggesting that a leading German socialist would have made a good Nazi concentration camp guard. His relations with the parliament have never recovered. He then failed in the most important task of his presidency, to negotiate agreement on the draft EU constitutional treaty. That was partly because he failed to focus on the details in time - his highest priority was simply to ensure that the treaty would be signed in Rome - and partly because he lacked the charm or influence to persuade his fellow leaders to compromise. It was left to Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, to do the deal six months later.

Mr Berlusconi has never made EU affairs much of a priority of his government, which has been by far the most Eurosceptic since Italy became a founder member in 1957. His coalition partners in the Northern League have been the most fiercely outspoken in attacking Brussels, but he has also promoted more serious sceptics, such as Antonio Martino, his minister of defence. They have publicly questioned Italy's adoption of the euro, to the horror of the financial establishment but the delight of Italian consumers, who blame the single currency for retail price inflation.

Another important factor in Italy's loss of influence has been the lack of close co-ordination between Rome and its officials in Brussels. Too often Italian diplomats are simply unable to react to initiatives from the Commission or other EU members because they have no clear instructions from their capital, insiders say.

By backing the US invasion of Iraq, Mr Berlusconi also distanced Italy from its traditional close alliance with France and Germany in the EU, and lined up alongside the UK and Spain (as long as José María Aznar was prime minister). That is one important reason why Mr Blair will miss him if he goes. The other is that the UK prime minister has never repaired his poor personal relations with Mr Prodi since the latter was Commission president.

Economic reformers in Brussels, already disappointed by the lack of progress in deregulating and restructuring the Italian economy under Mr Berlusconi, fear that a left-of-centre Prodi coalition will be held hostage by the Communist Refoundation, headed by Fausto Bertinotti. His party rejects Mr Prodi's rhetoric of market liberalisation.

The former prime minister is adamant that he would bring Italy back to its traditional position of close engagement with the EU. But whether he can deliver policies to back that up, rather than mere rhetoric, is open to question.


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