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Better than Nothing

In Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs on December 15, 2010 at 12:16 am

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Amid much chearing in the Italian Chamber and Senate, Silvio Berlusconi managed to survive a vote of confidence in his leadership. Though the margin – reports at this stage suggest – was only three votes, he nonetheless won. The knife-edge vote is a triumph for Berlusconi, but also represents sensible concerns about Italy’s position in the world.

First off, Berlusconi is the most high profile Italian leader there has been since WW2. This, it has been argued, is not because of any merit, but because he is particularly adept at being seen in the company of young girls and making crass remarks. But similar things could be said of Boris Johnson and Prince Philip too – and we are, by and large, content that they should hold senior positions. In fact, Berlusconi’s flamboyance allows him to create a different image of Italy, and raise its profile. Many more people know who he is than, say, the Prime Minister of Spain or Portugal or the Czech Republic. It has been noted that, since Berlusconi controls much of the media in Italy, certain scandals have not been given as much exposure as they have in the UK. This is probably true; but there is no censorship in Italy – there is nothing to stop people loading up CNN or BBC News if they want a different take. It seems that the people of Italy are not actually that fussed by Silvio’s antics. After all, this is the country of Cassanova. As for his alleged homophobia, we must also remember that Italy is the home of the Roman Catholic Church; a fair number of Italians are probably also of that opinion.

It also seems that Berlusconi is a competent operator within the government; during his time in office, significant progress has been made against the Mafia and Italy remains the most stable of the Southern Mediterranean economies. Berlusconi has achieved much of this by providing stability; Italy has had 62 changes of government since 1945 (65 years), but Berlusconi is midway through his third term. He has been able to weather the changing winds of Italian politics with some gusto. This most recent crisis of confidence came in typically Italian fashion, with the motion being spear-headed mot by prominent opposition leaders, but by a former ally of Berlusconi, Gianfranco Fini. Fini, who has been connected with neo-fascist groups in Italy, led a revolt from the right of Berlusconi’s party on issues of corruption and moral indecency. It had very little to do with actual policy, beyond the general: ‘we could do your job better’.

The newer allegations of corruption (he has already faced down some) will have to be dealt with by Berlusconi at some later date; his position as Prime Minister grants him immunity from prosecution. However, we have not learnt of any names ready to bring him to court upon the resignation that would have followed the vote of no confidence. But Berlusconi’s argument for keeping him was unrelated to these charges.

He argued that Italy could not afford to have a dithering government in these tough times. Italy is already implementing harsh austerity measures – which led to student protests on the day of the no confidence vote – in order to avoid becoming the next Eurozone economy to go grovelling to the IMF. Though more secure than Spain or Portugal, Berlusconi argued that this was a real danger. And given that it would have taken around 2 months to get an election going, and then probably many more to form a viable coalition, directionless government might have ensued. Belgium is already struggling to resolve its debt crisis without a government, and Italy’s task would be somewhat harder than Belgium’s; it has a higher percentage of debt to GDP, incredibly wide income disparity between North and South, and only enjoyed sluggish growth in the last decade.

One other thing Berlusconi did not mention explicitly was his experience. The longest-serving Italian PM in recent memory, he is also the longest serving leader of the west. Compared to him, Obama, Cameron, Merkel and Sarkozy are all relatively new. He has experience of dealing with ‘rogue states’ in the form of Libya, with whom he deals out of geographical necessity. Being Italian, he also has a good understanding of coalition, something that defines European politics generally (France and UK being notable exceptions). He also offers an experienced hand, having been successful enough as a businessman to buy AC Milan. He is well placed among Italian politicians to lead Italy through this current financial crisis, and the rocky political waters austerity entails.

The way this crisis arose – brought on suddenly by (former) members of his own party – indicates that Italy is broadly happy with the way Berlusconi is taking the country. Gianfranco Fini, I think, was posturing for a run at PM himself, leading a breakaway group. He has spent his political career moving between left, right and Berlusconi. It is significant that members of his party were happy to cross the floor to vote for Berlusconi when presented with policy arguments. Fini has misjudged the Italy’s problems, and Italy’s mood. The public, by and large, deem it more important to have a steady business-minded man at the helm than someone who chops and changes. Berlusconi must have been reasonably confident of carrying either the vote of no confidence or the election to offer so few concessions under pressure.

All in all then, Berlusconi continuing is a good thing for Italy – not only is it putting aside (albeit slowly) rancid political opportunism on the part of its parliamentarians and thinking about what is best for the country, but it is also committed to taking measures to deal with its sovereign debt and organised crime crises. For sure Berlusconi isn’t perfect. But he’s better than nothing.

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