A guest post from Savino Ruà: “Berlusconi versus Brussels, more than meets the eye”

Perjantaina, 4. syyskuuta 2009     0 kommentti(a)

In this guest post from a former colleague at UPI, Savino Ruà considers the deeper reasons for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s recent angry outburst at the European Commission. He argues that whilst many do not like Berlusconi’s style of leadership, this fight is about much deeper problems than the prime ministers personality.

By Savino Ruà: In the latest quarrel between the European Commission and Italy over immigration, the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, threatened yesterday to block the workings of the EU Council unless the commissioners and their spokespeople were barred from releasing declarations to the public on behalf of the Commission. “Only the President of the Commission and his spokesperson should be allowed to release public declarations”, Mr Berlusconi told reporters before an event to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War in Gdansk, in Poland. Apparently Berlusconi's anger had been provoked by the comments of Dennis Abbot, a Commission spokesperson on regional policy. Last Monday Mr Abbot, re-emphasizing the importance of the rights of refugees and of a fair asylum policy for the EU, said that the Commission had requested detailed information from Italy and Malta about the turning back of a boat transporting migrants from Libya to Europe.

Berlusconi's words are remarkably strong, in particular as they come from the prime minister of Italy – a major EU member state, a founding member of the Community and that has been long-perceived as Euro- enthusiast. Has Berlusconi simply gone mad in his threats to replicate what Charles de Gaulle did in 1965? Or are there actually more refined explanations behind the Italian threat of an empty chair crisis?

Some observers such as Martin Schultz, member of the European Parliament, or Antonio Di Pietro, leader of the Italy of Values Party and a fierce enemy of the current Italian prime minister, seem to think that it is all about Berlusconi's madness. They see the prime minister’s threat to block the EU resulting from him being anti-Europe and intolerant of criticism. Their view is simple: Berlusconi is a megalomaniac and comic individual unfit to rule his country and who is now acting out of control. Especially in non-Italian media (the Italian media is mostly under Berlusconi’s direct or indirect control) Berlusconi is often portrayed as the ‘sick man’ of Europe. “There is a chasm between Berlusconi and reality”, as the Times put it few days ago. Allegations of sex scandals, a tendency to disregard critics and ignore the opposition, questionable friends such Gaddafi and Putin and the very recent tensions with the Catholic Church: to many, this is evidence that all the evils of Italy (or almost all) stem from the peculiar personality, or better psychology, of its head of government.

Yet, things are not so simple. The Italian threat of an empty chair crisis reveals the dissatisfaction and unease of Italy's government about how the European Union is dealing with immigration. As Pierluigi Battista wrote yesterday in Corriere della Sera, Mr Berlusconi's threat is blunt, yet Italy's unhappiness is real. Berlusconi's remarks do not come out of the blue. For quite some time, there has been a row between the Commission and the Italian government on immigration. On the one hand, Italy asks for a more effective EU immigration policy and a system of quotas or burden sharing between all of the 27 EU member states. The Italian government has repeatedly asked for “more Europe” in immigration matters. Portraying the Italian prime minister as anti-EU seems rather inconsistent with reality. On the other hand, the European Union does not seem to be doing enough, or at least this is the impression of the Italian executive, not only of Mr Berlusconi.

If the European Union aims at increasing its legitimacy and efficiency, it should have more of a voice in what matters to its citizens and, in Italy at least, immigration is an issue of major concern. Berlusconi might be a rather peculiar and controversial politician, yet his threat is not madness. Surprisingly, it might actually work and lead to more debate and attention to immigration in Brussels. It might only be a coincidence, yet it is interesting that only one day after Berlusconi's threat, the Commission proposed the establishment of a EU Joint Resettlement Programme for refugees.

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