By Meyer, Michael Leverson; Nadeau, Barbie
Open mouth, insert foot. that has long seemed Silvio Berlusconi's patented political style. The Italian prime minister has been pratfalling his way across the world's stage ever since he took office last May in one of the most controversial and scandal-pocked elections Europe has ever seen. His fellow European leaders have done their best to ignore him, raising skeptical eyebrows at his more egregious antics but otherwise politely sidelining him. It's as though he were the unsavory closet cousin at a grand dinner--to be seen, regrettably, but not heard.
Poor Silvio. He may come to miss those days. Abruptly, in less than a week, the repressed forbearance of old has flashed into angry criticism across continental Europe. Ministers have melted down in puddles of diplo-speak, labeling him and his government "irresponsible," "adolescent," "disappointing." Once rather a joke, Berlusconi has morphed into something darker--an obstructionist troublemaker, a sort of Eurocratic Darth Vader, a potential Disrupter of Grand European Plans. The worries run so deep that Europe's elder statesman, former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, flew specially to Rome last week to see him. The Spanish foreign minister pounded on his door, bearing urgent missives from President Jose Maria Aznar. The Italian Parliament meets this week to discuss his policies, while political pundits and signori in the street speculate about his untimely political end. "The government will fall," predicts a seller of newspapers in Rome. "If he makes a mistake now, it's all over."
Was it something he said? Well, yes. It all began last week, fittingly, with the introduction of Europe's newfangled currency. Something to celebrate? Not in Italy, apparently. Save Euro-phoria for "primates waving banners, faith healers, shamans, miracle workers and bankers," grumbled Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, Berlusconi's political amanuensis. His offhanded dismissal of the latest and perhaps greatest step toward Europe's political and economic integration was echoed by others in Berlusconi's government--to deep dismay elsewhere. Hitherto, Italy had long been counted upon as a pillar of what Europhiles call "ever closer union." Did the attitudes of Berlusconi's lieutenants reflect a change of policy? From Paris to Brussels, ministries furiously demanded explanations.
Rather than offer reassurance, Berlusconi played the gadfly. When his stalwartly pro-Europe foreign minister, Renato Ruggiero, resigned in protest, he happily appointed himself in Ruggiero's place. Techies call it multitasking: a prime minister and foreign minister, all in one. Arriving to assume his responsibilities at the Foreign Ministry, Berlusconi was full of cocksure bluster: "I'm the right man in the right job."
Il Cavaliere, as Italians call him, is hardly new to such tempest. Indeed, he seems drawn to it. His tenure has been marked not just by whiffs of corruption. (Berlusconi has been embroiled in 10 different criminal cases ranging from bribery to tax evasion over the past five years.) Somehow, he manages to muff most important occasions of state. His first public foray as PM came at the G8 summit in Genoa. Three days of violent riots culminated in the shooting death of a young protester by security forces instructed to maintain public order at all costs. Berlusconi's response: to applaud the police for their tact and restraint. Then came September 11. …