Peter Popham: So, busty Berlusconi babe or ignoramus?

Milan Notebook

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Silvio Berlusconi's alleged plan to pad his European Parliament election list with busty showgirls has been condemned as an insult to Italian politics. But that requires the assumption that the Italian politicians who could not be described as eye candy are highly informed people with an elevated understanding of the world and its problems. And it ain't necessarily so.

A journalist on a TV current-affairs programme parked herself outside the Parliament building some time back and asked passing MPs elementary questions about current affairs. The results were stunning. Who is Nelson Mandela? A South American politician, perhaps from Brazil. What is Guantanamo? An American prison... in Iraq, or perhaps "Afagistan". Explain the Darfur crisis: long baffled silence. Finally the answer: Darfur is "a way of saying that something must be done in a hurry". The MPs seemed to feel little shame in exposing their utter ignorance on national television. There was no sense that they were failing disastrously at their chosen profession. The Westminster system of having parliamentary candidates answerable to specific constituencies and constituency parties was rejected long ago in Italy as likely to result in corruption. Instead candidates are merely included in party lists, and many of them never have to give an account of themselves in public. Nepotism and mediocrity are the result. The other week Berlusconi caused outrage when he said that the mass of MPs were only in parliament "to make up the numbers," but it seems he spoke the literal truth. At least Berlusconi's babes have youth and energy on their side, and some of them may rise to the challenges of office, as beautiful Italian politicians such as Stefania Prestigiacomo, the present Minister of the Environment, have done.

A speedy solution to fines

One nasty lesson Italy has learned from Britain in recent years is how parking fines, when splashed around generously enough, can be a useful fix for holes in municipal budgets. Scooters were always considered immune in the past but I have collected three whopping fines in recent months. Chiz. But now Florence is proposing a legal way to avoid paying them: opt for a quick bout of social work – paint the gates of a school, drop in on housebound seniors, one hour's work equivalent to €20 – instead.

Friends in high places

Another newcomer to politics standing in the European elections is "Prince" Emanuele Filiberto, 36, right, grandson of Italy's last king, on a Catholic centrist ticket. "I know half the heads of state in Europe," he boasted suavely, "and I'm related to the other half."

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