Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

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Toxic Berlusconi´s career is finally at an end
The Times - June 6th 2011

This is a big moment for Italy, as two notable Italians are preparing seriously for their futures. Mario Draghi, who as governor of the Bank of Italy has become one of the country’s most respected officials worldwide, is going on to greater things, moving in October to become president of the European Central Bank. Hence last Tuesday he started clearing his desk, and his throat, by delivering a final speech to the Bank of Italy’s shareholders that excoriated the record of the other notable Italian, Silvio Berlusconi. The prime minister seemed barely to notice, for he was fighting for his political life.

            Columns about Italian politics, especially those written by long-suffering foreign correspondents in Rome, have followed a standard formula since Mr Berlusconi was elected in 2008 for his third spell as prime minister. The first two-thirds of such columns describe the latest scandal or other political blow that has hit Mr Berlusconi: corruption investigations, call girls, Bunga-Bunga parties, abuse of power, and the much more trivial matter of an anaemic economic recovery. In their final third, such columns spin on their heels and say it is too soon to count Mr Berlusconi out, and that he will probably continue in office until 2013, when the next general election is due.

            Thanks to a political earthquake on May 30th, that assumption now looks highly questionable. In the second round of voting for mayoral elections, Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right party lost Milan, his home base and the heartland of his business support, for the first time in 20 years. The winner was Giuliano Pisapia, a left-wing lawyer who Mr Berlusconi had labelled as a former terrorist. Naples fell to another species of arch-enemy, a former magistrate.

            Incumbent parties are used to losing local elections in mid-term in any country. But these elections were different, for two main reasons. One is that Mr Berlusconi, known as the country’s greatest electoral campaigner, took part personally in the Milan contest and was humiliated. A campaign of smears and scare tactics about immigration backfired badly, and voters seemed to be saying that they had had enough of him. From such defeats, he has bounced back before. But the second reason will be far harder to recover from.

            It is that the other big losers in the local elections were his coalition partners, the Northern League. This small party, originally made up of separatist political insurgents, is now a blend of Britain’s Liberal Democrats (emphasising competent local government) and France’s National Front (blaming foreigners for everything). The League’s vote collapsed even in its north Italian strongholds, as neither its local competence nor its xenophobia rescued it from disenchantment with the national government.

 As with the Lib Dems, the party’s members blame their bigger partner, Mr Berlusconi’s party, the People of Liberty, for their misfortunes. The difference however, is that it is now clear to most of the League that they would do better separated from Mr Berlusconi than supporting him.

            The result is that the main game in Italian political punditry is in betting how soon Umberto Bossi, the Northern League’s leader, will pull the plug on the government. Later this month, say many: either directly after a set of referendums on June 12th-13th on water privatisation, nuclear power and Mr Berlusconi’s latest legal wheeze to avoid attending trials, or at the League’s annual get-together on June 19th. The now-small Berlusconi-will-always-survive brigade are betting on what price Mr Bossi will extract for his continued support.

Yet, as Mr Draghi pointed out in his speech at the Bank of Italy, Mr Berlusconi has very little room for manoeuvre: just about the only thing Mr Draghi felt that this, or his previous (2001-06) administration has done right has been to keep tight control over the budget deficit, to avoid Italy’s already huge public debts (at 120% of GDP, they are second only to Greece’s in the European dunce-rankings) causing a financial crisis. There is no money to be sprayed around, and the only cabinet minister who has emerged from this government with any credit is Giulio Tremonti, the tight-fisted finance minister, who stands to gain if Mr Berlusconi is toppled, as he is a possible successor and is close to Mr Bossi.

It is all, as usual, a rather Baroque political affair, sadly remote from the concerns and interests of ordinary Italians. Yet it matters, both for Italy and for the rest of Europe. It matters for Italy because, as Mr Draghi outlined, the need for economic reform has long been clear but has been ignored by Italian governments, which given that he has been prime minister for eight of the past ten years, mainly means Mr Berlusconi. In that time, Italy’s GDP has increased by less than 3% while that of France grew by 12%; with such low growth, real household incomes have stagnated too.

Mr Berlusconi describes himself as favouring “liberty”, but has in fact governed as an old-fashioned corporatist, doing deals for preferred companies in places like Libya and Russia, but little else. This successful businessman, who made his fortune in media and advertising by creating monopolistic positions with the help of political allies, has shown scant interest in economic policy while in office, especially the liberal sort.

That is not, however, true of Italian political parties in general. Even the Northern League stands for some liberal principles. The main liberalising reforms during the 1990s and briefly in 2006-08 were implemented by centre-left coalitions. So, although it is unclear quite what formation might succeed the Berlusconi administration, almost any would be likely to be more liberalising than his has been.

It matters for the rest of Europe because Italy is at the heart of the continent’s two big current challenges—sustaining the euro and establishing new, constructive relations with the countries on the southern coast of the Mediterranean—and under its present government Italy is playing virtually no role on either matter. Fear of immigration and of hurting his old pal Colonel Qadaffi have even hobbled Mr Berlusconi’s policies towards Italy’s former colony, Libya, leaving France and Britain to make the main moves.

Should this column now spin on its heel, and say that it is too soon for Mr Berlusconi to be counted out? No. He is a political vegetable, unable to do anything of any importance beyond fighting his own legal cases. The Northern League thought they could still use him to advance their cause, but they now see him as carrying the political equivalent of E-coli. It is time for them to wash their hands of him, and they will surely do so very soon.


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