THE IoS PROFILE: Silvio Berlusconi - Poor Silvio ; ... He's Spent Only One Day on His Yacht in the Last Two Years. He Hasn't Set Foot Inside His House in Bermuda for Three. in between Running Three TV Stations, a National Newspaper, Magazines and AC Milan He Has a `Terrible Job' Running the Country - and Fending off Corruption Charges. and Why? to Protect Italy from the Communists, of Course

By Popham, Peter | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), May 11, 2003 | Go to article overview
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THE IoS PROFILE: Silvio Berlusconi - Poor Silvio ; ... He's Spent Only One Day on His Yacht in the Last Two Years. He Hasn't Set Foot Inside His House in Bermuda for Three. in between Running Three TV Stations, a National Newspaper, Magazines and AC Milan He Has a `Terrible Job' Running the Country - and Fending off Corruption Charges. and Why? to Protect Italy from the Communists, of Course


Popham, Peter, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


Thanks to the rotating EU presidency that Italy assumes on 1 July, the rest of Europe is about to get an immersion course in what it is like to have Silvio Berlusconi as a leader.

There was a disturbing taster last Monday, when, three years after the start of his criminal trial in Milan for bribing judges, Berlusconi made his maiden intervention in the proceedings.

The 45-minute speech was a gem of Berlusconiana, a small masterpiece of pride, spleen and evasiveness. One might have imagined that he had finally showed up in court after all this time to rebut the serious criminal charges against him - charges similar to those which saw his close friend, colleague and personal lawyer, Cesare Previti, sentenced to 11 years in jail two weeks ago. But he made no reference to his guilt or innocence in the matter. Instead, he told the judges that other people had done bad things. He hinted that they should go after Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission and an old political enemy, or perhaps Giuliano Amato, another ex-prime minister who serves under Giscard D'Estaing on the commission that is drawing up a European constitution.

It was an entirely destructive performance. Berlusconi did nothing to shift the black cloud of suspicion hanging over him. He drew a powerful international spotlight on to a case that portrays Italy's richest man as capable of seedy and cynical deals, corrupting the institution of the judiciary - a case that has been puttering on largely unregarded by the outside world since 2000.

And by gratuitously dragging Prodi and Amato into his discourse and making nasty insinuations about them, he made it immensely difficult for Italy, and himself, to make a success of the six- month presidency. The great dream of Berlusconi was that Italy's presidency should culminate in a new Treaty of Rome, successor to the one of 1948 that brought the European Community into existence. By poisoning relations with Prodi, Berlusconi has made that far less likely to happen.

Europe got an appalling glimpse of a man who seems to have no hesitation in bending political and judicial events to fit his personal agenda. At a time when the EU is still licking its wounds after the divisions over Iraq, when 10 new countries are lining up to join and a European constitution is on the anvil, what the union needs at the helm is a far- seeing statesman with seasoned diplomatic skills. What they are getting is the man Italians call Il Cavaliere, "the Cavalier".

Born in Milan in 1936, the son of a bank clerk, Berlusconi made his first fortune as a property developer, then became a pioneer of commercial television. His leap into politics 10 years ago came after political and business circles in Milan had been decimated by corruption cases.

Dogged for years by criminal charges that could bring him down, Berlusconi has made saving his skin the subject of his government over the past two years. A raft of laws and other measures have been rammed through parliament, whose object - whatever his claims to the contrary - has been to get Berlusconi off the hook.

These include a law on judicial co-operation with foreign jurisdictions, making it more difficult for, say, evidence about Swiss bank accounts to be used in an Italian court; a law degrading false accounting from a criminal to a civil offence; and a law enabling cases to be moved from one jurisdiction to another if Italy's highest court agrees there is "legitimate suspicion" that the original judges are biased.

But none of these wheezes has done the trick, so Berlusconi's latest gambit is to bring in parliamentary immunity, which would have the effect of freezing all the cases against him.

Urgent legislation to deal, for example, with the pensions mess and growing economic problems has been put on hold while Berlusconi dedicates himself to putting himself out of the law's reach.

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THE IoS PROFILE: Silvio Berlusconi - Poor Silvio ; ... He's Spent Only One Day on His Yacht in the Last Two Years. He Hasn't Set Foot Inside His House in Bermuda for Three. in between Running Three TV Stations, a National Newspaper, Magazines and AC Milan He Has a `Terrible Job' Running the Country - and Fending off Corruption Charges. and Why? to Protect Italy from the Communists, of Course
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