Tag Archives: Silvio Berlusconi

Heads up!

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Perhaps the only surprise when a statuette of a cathedral struck Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on the side of the face on Sunday was that the man who launched it into the crisp Milan air had a history of mental problems and was not one of the millions of perfectly sane Italians who detest their premier.

Few democratic leaders have bred such strong contempt in a large section of their population as Berlusconi has in Italy. A banner at a protest against the Iraq War in Rome in 2003 was indicative of the hatred that has burned for the media-mogul-turned-politician throughout this decade: “Iraq, we’ll have Saddam if you take Berlusconi,” it read.

The physical attack on the 73-year-old prime minister resulted in a few scars that a bit more plastic surgery can fix but it also symbolized the dead-end to which this incessant rage against him has led. Despite opportunities to provide a credible alternative to his governments, the country’s center-left has failed to find the answers to Italy’s problems, many of which are similar to those of Greece, such as the need for widespread structural reforms. Despite the poor state of the economy, his embroilment with more women of questionable repute than Hugh Hefner and accusations of numerous corruption scandals, Berlusconi’s popularity rating remains just above 50 percent and many experts are predicting that sympathy after Sunday’s attack will help it to rise.

Although Italy is no stranger to violence being inflicted on its politicians, it has worked hard to eradicate this element from the country’s political life – the last assassination of a senior politician was in 1978. Berlusconi’s opponents are now caught between a rock and a hard alabaster souvenir as they have to continue chipping away at his surgically enhanced facade without letting their efforts be driven just by hate.

“This clearly shows the degradation of the political clash in Italy,” said Ezio Mauro, editor-in-chief of Rome’s La Repubblica, of Sunday’s attack on Berlusconi. The daily newspaper has been one of the few media outlets critical of the prime minister’s tenure in office. And herein lies the problem for Berlusconi’s opponents: His iron grip on the media hardly allows them the chance to get a word in.

The premier owns the largest Italian publishing house, Mondadori, and three private Mediaset TV channels. He also exercises influence over state TV Rai as most of the broadcaster’s executives are political appointees – the 73-year-old has actually said that it is “unacceptable” for Rai to criticize the government. All this has resulted in the independent watchdog Freedom House ranking Italy 73rd for press freedom along with Tonga (Greece is ranked 63rd) out of 195 countries worldwide.

Although Berlusconi’s colorful antics sometimes make him appear like the villain in an Austin Powers movie (Dr Feelgood perhaps), his supremacy is very real in Italy and absolutely relevant beyond the country’s borders.

A mere glance around the world confirms that the dividing lines between the media and politics are becoming increasingly blurred. While Berlusconi was getting whacked in the face, center-right candidate Sebastian Pinera was winning the first round of Chile’s presidential election. Pinera is a successful businessman who owns Chile’s fourth most popular TV channel, Chilevision, which serves up a visual diet of mostly gossip shows, soap operas and news. In Britain, the Conservative Party has come under attack for an alleged secret agreement it has struck with The Sun newspaper, the UK’s most-read daily. In return for the paper’s support in the runup to next year’s general election, the Conservatives have allegedly agreed to reduce state funding for the BBC and slash regulation of private broadcasters.

In Greece, the bonds between the media and the people who run the country are there for all to see – literally – as they have often resulted in the awarding of public works contracts. Now, Prime Minister George Papandreou says he wants the two sides to stand further apart and for there to be more transparency in their dealings.

During his time in opposition as PASOK leader, he often resisted pressure from the media until opinion polls began to swing in his favor and those that had wanted to hand the reins of the party over to someone else wasted no time in jumping on the Papandreou bandwagon. But showing the same fortitude in government will be a different story, especially when events take a turn for the worse and the last thing he’ll need is extra pressure from newspapers and TV channels.

As such, it was interesting to note that the issue of media influence was not among the topics discussed at a groundbreaking meeting on corruption and transparency between parliamentary party leaders on Tuesday. Perhaps it was just an oversight – for Greece’s sake, we should hope so because, as Berlusconi has shown in Italy, when the media and the political system fuse into one, it results in something more painful for the country than just a bloody nose.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on December 18, 2009.

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The ditch Blair project

Tony_blair_witch Project_a.jpg

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Tony Blair must be getting used to rejection by now. He left office in 2007 unloved and unwanted after 10 years as British prime minister. His attempt to win back some respectability as an international statesman by becoming a Middle East envoy has been a damp squib. And now his voyage to become the Europe’s first president appears to have foundered on the EU’s perennial rock of uncertainty.

In hushed tones and behind closed doors, European leaders last week seemed to reject the idea of Blair being appointed president of the European Council, a position created by the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by all 27 EU member states.

Blair has some characteristics that would make him a suitable candidate for the role (charisma, valuable political experience, good communication skills, the ability to lead and diplomatic presence) but for many these are outweighed by the baggage he would bring with him (the Iraq War, his close ties to George W. Bush, his unpopularity in his own country, a pending investigation into whether he lied to his people and parliament and a fraught relationship with the EU in the past).

The fallout from the Iraq War is the biggest elephant in the room blocking Blair’s path to the presidency. The decision to hitch his wagon to George W. Bush’s lone star is something Europeans cannot overlook easily. But given the chance, Blair would probably explain that as the British prime minister, he had to make a decision – a very wrong one as it turned out – about whether to take part in a war. Had he been the prime minister of Belgium or Luxembourg, for example, perhaps his toughest foreign policy choice would have been what color bunting to get out when dignitaries visit from abroad.

Blair might even argue that having been through such a maelstrom and suffered the political consequences of his choices, he has the ideal experience to now be a unifying rather than a divisive figure. But even this does not dispel the dark cloud of mendacity that hangs over him. The Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s participation in the Iraq War will hopefully establish beyond doubt what Blair knew and what he told MPs and the public before committing troops to that conflict. The fact he’s due to face such an investigation appears to undermine his bid to become EU president. To risk having the first person in such a high-profile role publicly exposed as a liar would damage the Union. Of course, there would be more than a hint of hypocrisy in the air if he is rejected on this basis alone: Few of the 27 leaders who decide who fills the role are paragons of virtue themselves – any group that has Silvio Berlusconi as one of its most prominent decision-makers can hardly claim the moral high ground.

Perhaps that’s why some of them decided to suddenly create new criteria for any presidential candidate: his country would have to be a member of the eurozone and part of the Schengen Agreement – Britain is neither. If the EU’s aim is to appoint the best person for the job, then this shifting of the goalposts is preposterous. Theoretically, the EU president should be someone that’s transnational, not national, federal, not feudal. If he or she subscribes to the European project, then their homeland’s policy should be irrelevant.

10_okOf course, Blair’s critics would argue that he’s always been at loggerheads with the Union, typified by his stance in 2003 in the buildup to the Iraq War, which was widely interpreted as an effort to split the bloc. However, Blair has engaged with the EU in more constructive ways as well. One of his first acts after being voted into power in 1997 was to abolish Britain’s opt-out of the Maastricht Treaty’s Social Protocol. He was also one of the proponents in 1998 of giving the EU a role in defense policy and was a champion of the bloc’s enlargement. He was the first British prime minister to put the UK’s budget rebate up for discussion in 2005, when he urged member states to reform the Common Agricultural Policy and cut the extensive waste and laziness that it leads to, as we are well aware of in Greece.

In June of that year, Blair stood before the members of the European Parliament and set out a vision for a less bureaucratic, more liberal and modern Europe. “The people of Europe are speaking to us,” he said of citizens’ waning interest in the EU. “They are posing the questions. They want our leadership. It is time we gave it to them.” More than four years on, that leadership is still absent and, as the turnout in June’s European Parliament elections indicated, interest in the EU is flimsy. These are issues that, theoretically, a European president could address.

The role has been created so that someone can preside over the European Council – the regular summits between the 27 heads of government – and coordinate its work. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the president should also “ensure the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy.”

Yet, what we have seen over the last couple of weeks is a climb down from this position. The message from Brussels last week was that it would be preferable for the president to come from one of the smaller member states, that he or she should be able to strengthen Europe from within, not necessarily give it a presence on the world stage, and be willing to play second fiddle to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the 27 leaders.

“There is an argument that a political star as a president of the EU would lead to trouble with the president of the Commission and other leaders,” Robert Goebbels, the Luxembourg MEP who has launched a petition to stop Blair from being considered for the job, told Athens Plus.

It would be one of the EU’s more quixotic moments should it create an opening for a figurehead who could use diplomatic and communication skills to promote the Union to an increasingly apathetic public and give it a greater presence on the global stage only to then shackle him or her for fear of upsetting internal balances.

As the Dutch daily De Volkskrant put it in a recent headline: “Europe chooses: chief or messenger boy.” Given some of the names that have been mentioned as alternatives to Blair – Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, former Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Tapio Lipponen, former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga – it seems the EU has decided there are too many indians to have a chief.

Presumably some of these politicians, if not all, are who The Economist had in mind when it referred to “the usual Europygmies.” Maybe, it’s a harsh assessment of men and women who are capable politicians in their domains, although hardly singular figures, but it underlines the challenge the EU now faces in trying to select someone to fulfill a role whose purpose remains unclear and undefined.

At least something is much clearer now: rejecting Blair was the easy part, too easy perhaps.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on November 6, 2009.