Monday, July 07, 2003

Now Lets Have a Big Hand For the Next European President

Well with Berlusconi finally up and running as EU president, those whose exclusive preoccupation has become Bush-bashing should have some food for thought. Finally there's a yardstick to measure him by. Meanwhile this is probably as good a moment as any to give a welcome to another member of the European blogging community (even if this is a case of an American-eye view of Europe). Eurosavant may, or may not, be as learned as his name suggests, but he certainly can read a lot of languages. (More languages in fact than I have blogs). And his idea is an interesting one: to review the European press coverage of a given topic. You see we lack a common language, so we need someone to come and put it in plain English for us (don't worry, I'm only being ironic)! Especially promising is his contact with and knowledge of the three 'key' East European candidate members: Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. Since we on either side of the old 'iron curtain' know relatively little about one another this could be very interesting. Now if there was someone out there blogging something in English about Greece...........

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?). ................

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.
Source: EuroSavant

Just one small point. Towards the end of the piece Eurosavant says that "it's Italy that is in fine fiscal shape", now this isn't entirely correct. Italy has in fact avoided the threat of stability pact procedures only by taking a series of one-off measures, and it's not clear how long this can continue. They may go over the 3% this fiscal year. In any event they have a gynormous outstanding government debt, over 100% of GDP, and face one of the most vulnerable public finance dynamics in the EU. That being said, I still agree with the tenor of the point about north-south prejudices.

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