Stephen Castle: Europe is united - in contempt for its leader

The strain of keeping silent after the outburst left Mr Prodi ashen-faced, his head buried in his hands
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Even when he says sorry, Silvio Berlusconi has an uncanny ability to cause offence. The day after he phoned the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to explain why he likened one of his MEPs to a Nazi concentration camp commander, Mr Berlusconi was behaving with familiar bad grace: "I did not offer apologies, I expressed regret."

In vain diplomats search for a precedent to the extraordinary implosion of Italy's presidency of the European Union. For decades Italy was one nation that could be relied on to support European integration almost unconditionally. Now diplomats are bracing themselves for six months in which a maverick Italian premier may do more to undermine it than any of his predecessors.

The job of the president of the European Council may confer few formal powers, but it is an important one, casting its occupant as the honest broker who chairs meetings, sets agendas, smooths difficulties and acts as the EU's invisible glue. Yet within 72 hours of the start of the Italian presidency, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Sweden were so furious with this council president that they had demanded an apology.

Problems are not confined to these nations or to this issue. Mr Berlusconi enjoys famously bad relations with Jacques Chirac, the French president, and Finland remembers how, in a row over the site of an EU food agency, the Italian Prime Minister yelled at its leader: "The Finns don't even know what prosciutto is."

Relations with the EU's two other main institutions are, if anything, worse. The European Parliament, the scene of Mr Berlusconi's Nazi remark, has not received an apology and, judging by yesterday's statement, is not going to. There is no agreement to ban the Italian premier from the Strasbourg building, but the row will rumble on. Angered and aghast at Mr Berlusconi's blunder, the president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, said to him on Wednesday: "Silvio, what the fuck have you done?"

Then there is the European Commission, headed by the former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. He and Mr Berlusconi are rivals, and relations between them, never good, worsened recently when the Italian premier faced corruption charges. From his Italian courtroom, Mr Berlusconi claimed that it was Mr Prodi who should be on trial.

Mr Prodi kept silent after Wednesday's Berlusconi outburst, but the strain left him ashen-faced, his head often buried in his hands. At the conclusion of a joint press conference in Rome yesterday, the commission president turned his back on the Italian premier, then managed a cursory handshake as they left the stage. The two are barely on speaking terms.

Of course, this does not mean that Europe will be paralysed for the six months of Italy's presidency. Most EU business is conducted by bureaucrats from Brussels and the national capitals. Italy has a good diplomatic service and the daily diet of papers, initiatives and directives can be expected to spew out as normal.

On Thursday, EU ambassadors met for the first time under the chairmanship of the Italian representative, Umberto Vattani, a balding, hard-nosed diplomat renowned for being glued to his mobile phone. It was, reported one colleague, "well chaired with no problems".

But while the legislative machinery of Brussels will grind on unaffected, the same cannot be said of Italy's political leadership of the European Council. Mr Berlusconi has proved the points made so ardently by the critics: that he is rash and unpredictable, that he cannot be trusted to take part in (let alone lead) sensitive negotiations, that he cannot deal with pressure or indeed any criticism outside the cocoon of Italy, where he controls much of the media.

At each summit, national capitals will be praying that the Italian Prime Minister sticks to his script. This is a moment when the EU needs sensitive leadership as it tries to heal the wounds inflicted by the Iraq crisis. Mr Berlusconi's job was hard enough to begin with, given his support for George Bush on Iraq, and offending Mr Schröder has not helped.

On foreign affairs there is suspicion of the Italian premier, who has championed the cause of Israel and declined to meet Yasser Arafat during a visit to the Middle East. It seems inconceivable that Mr Berlusconi will play any significant role in the region's peace process.

Then there is Mr Berlusconi's main EU task, concluding negotiations among the EU's governments on the new draft constitution for Europe - preferably by the end of the year. This requires delicate negotiation and an ability to call in favours. On the evidence of the past four days, there could be few worse qualified candidates.

The Nazi jibe has damaged Berlusconi at home in Italy, too, where his comments have even been rejected by his deputy prime minister, Gianfranco Fini. That raises the possibility of volatility within the coalition, another clue to a troubled EU presidency.

But perhaps worst of all is the damage to Europe's image. For years the EU has been lecturing countries such as Slovakia about the need to comply with its values of tolerance, liberal democracy and pluralism. Now it has a country in the chair that some say would not qualify for EU membership if it were applying now.

s.castle@independent.co.uk

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