Berlusconi turns to G8 and Gaddafi for comfort

Italian leader shrugs off claims he hired call girls as he prepares to host summit
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The Independent Online

Dogged by domestic problems, Roman emperors would launch international adventures to divert public attention. In the same vein, facing a series of domestic scandals that would have embarrassed the Emperor Tiberius, Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, today takes to the world stage by announcing the programme for this year's G8 summit.

Mr Berlusconi will say that the economic crisis and the need for greater financial regulation, food supplies for developing countries and climate change are the key issued facing the informal but exclusive gathering of the world's seven richest nations, plus Russia, to be held in earthquake-torn L'Aquila from 8 to 10 July.

A spokesman for Mr Berlusconi said the summit had been moved from the Sardinian resort of La Maddalena to the devastated town in Abruzzo, central Italy, partly to bring a degree of "sobriety" to proceedings in a time of international crisis.

Events in Iran, the Middle East conflict, and international security issues will be high on the agenda. Voices at home and abroad are asking, however, if Mr Berlusconi's own domestic political crises will detract from his ability to tackle such weighty global issues.

Yesterday, it emerged that Giam-paolo Tarantini, the Bari businessman accused of procuring call girls for the 72-year-old media mogul's notorious parties in Rome and Sardinia, is under investigation for supplying cocaine.

Meanwhile, the head of the Bank of Italy warned that the domestic economy was growing "ever more fragile". And following attacks on the prime minister by senior church figures, it was reported yesterday that Mr Berlusconi's approval rating had slipped below 50 per cent for the first time since he won another term as premier. Nevertheless, a spokesman for the Prime Minister insisted that, "with two G8s already under his belt", he would bring experience and problem-solving ability to the summit.

The G5 nations – China, Brazil, Mexico, India and South Africa, plus Egypt, which Italy regards as "an important, Arab, Muslim and Middle-Eastern country" will also be represented. The Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who this month made a high-profile state visit to Rome, will appear at L'Acquila on day three to head a delegation of the African Union.

Thirty leaders will appear over three days. But there are daunting obstacles to Berlusconi's diplomatic ambitions.

On day two of the summit, Mr Berlusconi is due to co-chair the Major Economies Forum session on climate change with the US President. But the Italian premier does not have the close relationship with Barack Obama that he enjoyed with George Bush. His infamous description of the US President as "suntanned" after Mr Obama's election victory did not get the relationship off to a flying start.

This weekend, an Israeli paper quoted Mr Berlusconi as telling the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on a visit to Rome, that Mr Obama was "weak" on Iran. Italy also angered EU and US by this year stepping up its participation in the South Stream Russian gas pipeline, which competes with the Europe-backed Nabucco project designed to reduce Europe's reliance on Russian supplies.

Mr Berlusconi thinks these factors offer opportunities: he is keen to promote himself as a key mediator between Russia and the US, even Israel and the US. And while Mr Netanyahu's government is at loggerheads with the Obama administration, Rome was Mr Netanyahu's first European port of call after his re-election.

Whether all this will change the way ordinary Italians see him is unknown. But his spokesman, Marco Ventura, said: "He is fit and looking forward to announcing the G8 programme. The day after, he's off to Libya to meet Colonel Gaddafi."

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