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EU: Italy's Controversial Presidency Drawing To An End

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Italy's tenure of the European Union's rotating presidency is drawing to a close in much the same circumstances as it began -- that is, with discord. With little more than a month of the presidency left, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his ministers have managed to ignite fresh controversy.

Prague, 13 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- No one can accuse Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of being a pedestrian politician. Any national leader who releases recordings of personally composed love songs has to be considered out of the ordinary.

And Berlusconi is. A fabulously wealthy media magnate who has been enmired in many legal challenges relating to his allegedly shady practices in business, Berlusconi thrives in spite of accusations that as prime minister he has shaped laws of the land to benefit his entrepreneurial life.

His offbeat -- and sometimes off-putting -- sense of humor appears unquenchable. And he exudes the machismo of the playboys who used to race Ferraris around the gardens of the Villa D'Este Hotel on Lake Como for the benefit of watching film starlets.

But the hotel management eventually put a stop to that. And likewise Berlusconi's welcome is wearing thin with the officials in that sober bastion, Brussels.

The Italian six-month presidency of the European Union, which started in June, has proven stormy -- and it looks set to end the same way as it began, with recrimination and disagreement. It doesn't help that the European Commission is led by Romano Prodi, an Italian leftist who is a long-time opponent of the rightist Berlusconi.

"The two men have a profound personal dislike, they have a profound political dislike of each other, and they are serious rivals," said James Waltson, a professor of politics at Rome's American University.

The beginning of the presidency was spectacular enough. Berlusconi was heckled while giving a speech to the European Parliament. His main taunter was a German deputy, and Berlusconi shot back that the man would have made a good concentration camp guard. That remark soured Italian-German relations, and caused Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to cancel a holiday in Italy. Berlusconi said later he was joking, but the humor was lost on much of the audience north of the Alps.

Waltson says it is part of Berlusconi's personality to speak on impulse, a trait which can lead to trouble: "[Berlusconi] does not work things out beforehand. You can see it very often. You can see that he is restrained by his [spokesman Paulo] Bonaiuti, who is usually standing very close to him at press conferences, and you can see glances between Berlusconi and Bonaiuti which show this, and on other occasions he just free-associates by himself and gets into terrible trouble."

More recently, other storms have struck. Last week Berlusconi, in his typically idiosyncratic way, took Russian President Vladimir Putin under his wing. Putin has come under growing international criticism for Russia's actions in the recent arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovskii and the impounding of shares in his company, Yukos.

Berlusconi, with Putin beside him in Rome, gave a five-minute speech standing up for the Russian leader, even describing himself as Putin's self-appointed "defense lawyer."

Berlusconi's remarks ran counter to the EU's common position, as expressed by Prodi, that the Yukos affair may have a negative impact on the security of foreign investments in Russia.

The Italian leader also sought to justify Russia's actions in the four-year Chechen conflict: "In Chechnya, there is terrorist activity that has caused many attacks against Russian citizens. There has never been a corresponding response on the part of the Russian Federation which suffered these attacks."

The commission later rejected Berlusconi's remarks, saying it does not agree with him either on Yukos or on Russia's actions in Chechnya.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana wagged a finger, saying Berlusconi must remember he represents the EU presidency and his comments should take account of common policy stands even when speaking on bilateral matters.

Then there is the Middle East. Italian Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini recently expressed understanding for the Israeli decision to build a fence around the West Bank to control terrorism. That's despite EU policy which opposes the fence as disruptive to the lives of Palestinians.

Solana sharply criticized the Italians on this point, telling journalists, "the official message is the message given by me, by the European Union."

Solana also noted the flaws inherent in having a different EU president serving every six months, and he said the situation should improve under arrangements foreshadowed in the new constitution. The draft constitution foresees the appointment of an individual to serve as long-term EU president, thus ending the rotation system. As Waltson says, the unprecedented bickering has highlighted institutional shortcomings.

"What it has done is to show everybody -- including those who are coming to the final draft of the constitution -- what sort of problems might lie ahead if the institutional roles are not properly fixed," Waltson said.

However, it is not yet certain the new arrangements will actually be adopted in the finished document, as some member states favor continuing the old rotation system.

What good can be said of the Italian presidency? Certainly Rome has engaged itself constructively in the special Inter-Governmental Conference to finalize the new constitution. If Berlusconi manages to wind up the conference on schedule, before Christmas, that will definitely be a feather in his cap. But that seems unlikely because of the scale of disagreement over the constitution.

Analyst Sebastian Kurpas, of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, says that a distinction must be drawn between the highly publicized controversies of the Italian presidency, and the work it has done on key issues like the constitution and restoring the EU economy:

"You cannot say that it is a complete disaster. I mean, there are many people involved in the Italian presidency, on different working levels, and it would not be fair to say it is all completely disastrous," Kurpas said.

Italy is a founding member of the EU and until Berlusconi came to power, Rome was always a staunch supporter of European integration. Berlusconi, however, is not an enthusiastic EU supporter. Nor are his coalition partners Fini of the post-Fascist party and Umberto Bossi of the nationalist Liga Nord. Bossi in particular is extremely hostile.

"The first thing [to ask] is -- has this [dislike] been evident during the presidency? -- yes, especially in terms of what the media reported. But does that have a deeper impact or an influence on the actual outcome, meaning the policies or their content? Not necessarily, because there are more people involved in the whole process than just the top-rank politicians," Kurpas said.

In any event, the presidency of the union is certainly an exacting responsibility, and one about to become even more complicated as 10 new members join in May. Ireland, which takes over the rotating presidency from Italy on 1 January 2004, will have the honor of welcoming the Eastern newcomers.