Naples may have cleaned up its act, but what about Berlusconi?


LETTER FROM ROME:Although Italy's prime minister is taking credit for solving the rubbish problem, mud continues to stick to him, writes Paddy Agnew.

IT WAS one of those photo opportunities that Silvio Berlusconi simply could not resist. There he was, crossing Naples's Piazza del Plebiscito to hold a press conference, when a newly married couple, 28-year-old Morena Zaccaria and 29-year-old Massimiliano Pesare, came walking down the steps of the basilica of San Francesco.

The Italian prime minister spotted the couple and had his driver stop so that he might get out and offer them a traditional "auguri" (good luck).

With typically flamboyant Berlusconi charm, the prime minister kissed the bride and then posed for a series of pics, before leaving the couple who, for their part, wished him "auguri per l'Italia".

Berlusconi had every reason to feel buoyant. After all, he was in Naples last Friday for a cabinet meeting and a press conference at which he announced that the city's much-publicised rubbish crisis was over: "We kept our promise and we kept it in 58 days. Naples and Campania are once again clean western cities and regions, without that disaster that so ruined the image of Italy in the eyes of the world . . . We've pulled off a mission impossible."

Two months ago, he said, there were 50,000 tonnes of rubbish rotting on the streets of Naples. Now, there are just 2,000 tonnes of toxic waste, accumulated in the Neapolitan suburbs and due for removal by the end of the month.

TV images and pictures of central Naples confirm his words. The mess of downtown Naples has indeed been resolved. Just two months after taking office (for the third time in 14 years), Berlusconi was able to claim a striking success.

Reflecting on how things had gone, he likened himself to the red wine, Brunello di Montalcino: "Like the Brunello, I get better and better as the years go by."

The prime minister has been in a "reflective" mood, complaining about "the lack of leadership" in Europe, comparing himself favourably with French president Nicolas Sarkozy ("I'm better") and arguing that he has now become "the historical memory" for Europe's leaders.

As we all know only too well, Berlusconi is never one to miss out on a little self-promotion, but are things really quite so rosy? For a start, is the Naples rubbish crisis really resolved? Berlusconi himself admitted it would probably take three years before a "definitive resolution" could be achieved. Proving the point are pictures on the website of Rome daily La Repubblica showing tonnes (perhaps 10,000) of rubbish rotting in Neapolitan suburbs such as Ponticelli.

Further proving the point was a series of protests on the day of the Naples cabinet meeting by the residents of Campania town Chiaiano who do not want a new incinerator plant built near them. Worse still, on that same day, the Neapolitan anti-Mafia squad seized eight illegal dumps, allegedly run by the Camorra, where heavily toxic waste from northern industrial concerns had been dumped. (The companies get rid of dangerous materials at a knock-down price).

Clearly, the Naples and Campania rubbish problem is complex and does not end here. But how has the Berlusconi government been faring on other fronts? When he took office, the prime minister had adopted statesman-like sombre tones, his buzz word had been "dialogue" (with the opposition) and many were speculating that, this time, he would be seriously interested in governing well in the interests of Italians (and not of Silvio Berlusconi Inc).

In so doing, he might, among other things, guarantee himself a crack at the presidency. Ten weeks into office, the landscape looks different. Surprise, surprise, four of Berlusconi's initial legislative proposals looked suspiciously like ad personam measures, intended to resolve his never-ending judicial problems: immunity for the four "highest offices in the land"; a ban on phone-tapping by investigating magistrates; a measure to freeze a range of trials (perhaps including the one in which the prime minister is accused of paying a €400,000 bribe to British lawyer David Mills); and a proposed decree that looked suspiciously like an attempt to get round a European Court of Justice ruling that the Berlusconi channel Rete 4 was illegally occupying frequencies assigned to another operator.

The "trial freeze" and Rete 4 measures have been dropped, while the immunity measure could well (eventually) be rejected by Italy's constitutional court. However, the scenario looks very similar to the path traced by Berlusconi during his last period in office (2001-2006).

Being Berlusconi, things do not end there. The controversy on phone-taps took on highly colourful tones when various media sources suggested that the measure might also be intended to prevent the publication of indelicate, sexual chat from the prime minister in which he discusses his various sexual dalliances with, among others, female ministers.

The upshot of that speculation was that when the Italy of Values party, led by the ex-investigating magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, held a protest rally in Rome's Piazza Navona ("dialogue" has gone out the window), the meeting was dominated by claims from comedienne and political activist Sabrina Guzzanti that the current equal opportunities minister, glamorous 32-year-old former showgirl Mara Carfagna, owed her job only to the fact that she had had a sexual relationship with 72-year-old Berlusconi.

Being Italy, it is of course more than possible that this accusation will do the prime minister no harm at all. As for the other "controversies", they may be harder to shake off.