Rumours are running rife around Europe that Silvio Berlusconi will be re-running for Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri next year. The Telegraph reported as recently as three weeks ago that he will announce his intention imminently from his cruise ship tour of Italy (in typical Berlusconi fashion the bid being cleverly orchestrated and deliberately vague). But if the former cruise ship crooner and Bunga Bunga extraordinaire is to make a political comeback, then what would be the implications for Italian-European relations?.
Berlusconi is the longest serving post-war Prime Minister of Italy, surviving over fifty confidence votes during his three terms of office. His reign included assuming the European Council Presidency in 2003 (in which he began sensationally by suggesting that the German Socialist MEP Martin Schulz would be ‘perfect’ for the role of a Nazi concentration camp leader) as well as being the most senior leader of the G8 (2009-2011). The gaffe-prone billionaire leader resigned from office on November 16th, 2011 and Europe has become a dull place without him. Who else has been reproached by the Queen for shouting a greeting too loudly at Barack Obama? Not Mario Monti, the current technocratic Prime Minister of Italy, to be sure.
However, rumours are afoot that ‘Il Cavaliere’ plans to re-run for Prime Minister next year. For his public relations team, Christmas may have just been cancelled as journalists and editors across Europe line up to write about the eccentric former PM’s latest hair transplants and controversies. So what would the return of the Bunga Bunga King mean for Europe?
Economically, Berlusconi’s national track record isn’t very strong, although interestingly, his personal wealth has made him the 169th richest man in the world (Forbes 2012). It is believed that if he does stage a comeback, he would re-launch his People of Freedom Party (PdL) on the same free-market principles that he ran on and failed to apply in previous terms in office. Though he presided over some of the most globally volatile economic times since the Second World War, with huge contractions in the markets, his stewardship was marked by failures to introduce much needed structural reforms. As a result, Italy’s economic growth throughout the noughties was almost negligible. It was the economy which toppled the seemingly indestructible ‘knight’ of Italy, who seemingly ‘played the violin while Italy was financially burning’ (Mammone, The Independent, 2011). It was failure of economic leadership, not the corruption allegations, sex scandals and the almost farcical nature of some of his cabinet appointments (but who says former beauty queens and topless dancers don’t make good politicians?) that broke the camel’s back time and again.
One of the many additional nails in Berlusconi’s political coffin was the period in which Italy’s Constitutional Court overturned his immunity from prosecution while in office and opened corruption cases, leading Silvio to claim that he is the most persecuted person ‘in the entire history of the world’. Unsurprisingly this statement was toxic both domestically and internationally.
Furthermore, it is Berlusconi’s penchant for not only irritating, but downright offending Europe, particularly Germany, at a time of much needed European unity that could be catastrophic. Alongside calling Angela Merkel an ‘unfuckable lard arse’ his recent comments about Germany being ‘a hegemonic state’ that dictates to other European states are widely viewed as a step too far. A Berlusconi comeback in the midst of European financial turmoil may not be welcomed, especially as his latest resignation came after European dissatisfaction with his financial mismanagement that left Italy on the brink of economic collapse. He presided over the deepest output fall in the Italian post-war state with a cumulative 6.5% decline in GDP. Contrasted to Monti’s economic management and popularity in European diplomatic and business circles, it is unlikely even Berlusconi’s best crooning could get Italy or Europe to sing to his tune.
To assume that Berlusconi will win next spring would be a dangerous wager. A poll last week found that Monti’s 2012 approval rating in September was 42 percent (Reuters 2012), in contrast with a Termometro Politico poll from June of this year, which found that 72% of those questioned would not vote for Berlusconi again (The Economist 2012). On an interesting side note, Berlusconi’s approval rating among Italian males in the polls actually increased at the height of the sex scandals. However, given his national economic track record, the international embarrassment and the domestic political turmoil, it may not be the wisest vote Italians could make when they take to the polling booths next year. Although Berlusconi has called Monti’s policies ‘exclusively reactionary’, it appears that the former economics professor and European Commissioner’s spending cuts, new taxes and pension reforms seem to be ‘working’. ‘Working’ in that Italy appears have to avoided a Hellenistic debt debacle. It is still unclear what Berlusconi would do differently in office to keep Italy in the black.
Berlusconi has bounced back from ‘political near death’ before during the late 1990’s and mid 2000’s. Although a comeback seems unlikely, the financial and communication resources at his disposal are vast. This coupled the domestic unpopularity of Monti’s spending cuts and tax increases may offer a slight window of opportunity for Berlusconi to capitalise on. Hopefully, for Italy and Europe’s sake, this will be short lived. The window of Berlusconi’s opportunity is limited to a porthole on a [sinking] cruise ship, and it seems more likely that this ship is sailing to a political retirement than to Rome and Brussels.