Brussels on edge as Berlusconi takes EU presidency

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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi takes over the EU presidency today from a position of strength at the head of the most solid Italian government of the past 12 years. His House of Liberties coalition has a strong majority in both houses of parliament, and has ruled for more than two years, twice the Italian postwar average.

He is Italy's first convincing leader in memory. As the newspaper Il Riformista commented yesterday: "[The majority of Italians] voted for him because they saw a leader, and they saw correctly." In Le Monde, Marc Lazar wrote: "For his fans, [Berlusconi] is a type of Italian de Gaulle."

Yet in Brussels and Strasbourg, the Berlusconi take-over is awaited with a degree of trepidation. They do not know whether they are going to get Mussolini Mark II or Forrest Gump.

With its history of weak, short-lived governments, Italy has often appeared the poor relation at the European table, grateful for a seat and rarely daring to raise its voice. Since becoming Prime Minister in 2001 for the second time, Mr Berlusconi has made plain his intention that Italy should cut a more impressive and decisive figure.

His ministers have taken a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book in their willingness to make a fuss over everything from controversial foreign policy positions to milk quotas. Italy was long known as the country that went along most readily with whatever new regulations the EU's bureaucrats might come up with - merely failing to implement them at home. Now that yes-man image has gone.

But in its place there is not a constructive programme. Instead there is explosive unpredictability, and a bizarre readiness to play, and to be thought, the buffoon.

Mr Berlusconi is well known for his addiction to jokes. It is said that one reason his minders never allow journalists to travel with him is because they know he could not control his flow of filthy jests for several hours at a stretch. And then the great dignity of the Presidente del Consiglio (President of the Council), as the Prime Minister is styled in Italian, would be fatally punctured.

But at times he is quite happy to do a little puncturing of his own. Such as the time, at a dinner of world leaders in 1994, when Boris Yeltsin of Russia complained at the failure of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) to come to the Kremlin's rescue over Chechnya.

Carl Bildt, the Swedish leader, suggested that, since Italy held the CSCE chairmanship, Mr Berlusconi was the right man to answer Mr Yeltsin's complaint. The Italian jumped into the breach, expounding fluently and at length on Chechnya, Europe's future, and war.

When it was all over, Mr Berlusconi went to the Spanish Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, and said: "What is the CSCE, anyway?" Mr Gonzalez laughed so loud that he fell over, according to Mr Berlusconi. This is a story starring, and told by, Mr Berlusconi himself.

A principal reason for his stunning political success in Italy 10 years ago was that the mass of voters perceived him to be an outsider like themselves, a regular guy no more likely than they were to know what CSCE stood for. In Brussels and Strasbourg, however, such happy tomfoolery is unlikely to cut much ice.

His capacity for gaffes is legendary. Soon after 11 September, with tension between the Islamic world and the West at a new high, Mr Berlusconi said, in his breezy, sensible way: "We must be aware of the superiority of our civilisation, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and - in contrast to Islamic countries - respect for religious and political rights.

"The West will continue to conquer peoples, even if it means a confrontation with another civilisation, Islam, firmly entrenched where it was 1,400 years ago."

His attempts at humour and his gaffes grab attention because they seem the most substantial things he has to offer. As the politically neutral Il Riformista observed yesterday, after conceding that Mr Berlusconi truly was a leader: "What seems to be missing, and what defines leadership, is a sense of direction."

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Interior Minister, who was a guest at Mr Berlusconi's villa in Sardinia last week, said of him: "He is a convinced European" who was "committed to a grand project for the modernisation of Italy". Kind words, especially coming from the ally with whom Mr Berlusconi's relations were most abrasive, even before the parting of the ways over Iraq. But are they true?

Domestic opponents accuse of him of saying whatever his present interlocutor wishes to hear. To Mr Bush and Mr Blair he breathed anti-Saddam fire, to the Pope he was a would-be mediator, with Ariel Sharon he is "Israel's best European friend" as Mr Sharon described him recently; he is the Euro-chauvinist against Islam when that seems appropriate; later he advocated throwing open the EU to Russia, Israel, Turkey and others. What is lacking is coherence.

The only thing certain about Italy's presidency is that Mr Berlusconi will extract from it as much domestic political advantage as he can. And if along the way he can also fatally hobble Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, his big domestic rival, that will be no bad thing in his eyes.