Opposition to a Berlusconi return gains momentum


“I will be a candidate only if it is necessary.”

The man to utter those words in Brussels last week was, of course, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Even the mercurial Berlusconi must have noticed, however, that the general feeling among his EU peer group was one of “Don’t worry, Silvio, it definitely is not necessary”.

At the end of a topsy-turvey week in the wonderland of Italian politics, a certain reservation about the spectre of Berlusconi’s return was hardly surprising. After all, in a matter of days, he had managed to generate a tsunami of confusion.

First, he brought down the 13-month-old technocrat government of Mario Monti. Second, and more alarming for some, he suggested himself as the man to replace Monti. That alarm became tangible when the markets opened last Monday with the infamous “spread” between Italian and German 10-year government bonds immediately rising 28 basis points.

Nor did Berlusconi do much to help those worried by his “return to the field” when he appeared to belittle Italy’s economic woes last Tuesday morning, arguing that the bond spread issue was essentially a swindle, engineered by Germany to suit its own purposes. Furthermore, he then criticised the Monti government, saying it had created “a crisis situation much worse than when we were in government”.

However, worse was to follow because at a Wednesday press conference, he then dumbfounded observers by nominating three possible future prime ministers in the space of 10 minutes – namely himself, Monti and Angelino Alfano, secretary of his PDL party. Furthermore, he continued to utter critical noises about a German-dominated EU.

Monti invited

All of which meant that when Berlusconi turned up for a Thursday meeting of the European centre-right parties (EEP) in Brussels, he not only received a less than warm welcome but, to his surprise, he found Monti had also been invited along. Throughout the day, EU leaders queued up to express their appreciation of the work done by Monti since he took over from the floundering Berlusconi in November last year.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi told his EPP colleagues that he had always been a convinced “European” and that he would willingly “take a step back”, if only Monti would run as a centre-right candidate for prime minister.

Not everyone was impressed with French president François Hollande saying: “I don’t take his words saying he has abandoned his candidature seriously. What Berlusconi says one day is not necessarily true the next day.”

That EPP meeting represented the second time in a week that Monti had done a “nutmeg” on Berlusconi. After all when Berlusconi’s PDL party had withdrawn its support from the cross-party, Monti technocrat government, he had not expected Monti to respond immediately by tendering his resignation. Instead, he had hoped Monti might hang on in office in an ill-defined limbo that would take them through to the legislature’s natural end, probably April next year.

In the meantime, Berlusconi was not helped by court hearings into two sex scandals in which he is involved – “Rubygate” in Milan and “Barigate” in Bari. Thus, the end of a remarkable week, Berlusconi has galvanised an impressive set of forces, all opposed to his return to office – the EU establishment, Monti, the Italian Catholic Church (which now favours Monti) and his longtime allies in the Northern League, not to mention the mainstream opposition parties. Given that he appears to have little chance of winning these elections, he could pull in a 15-20 per cent vote, making the next parliament ungovernable for likely winner, the Democratic Party.