How Not to Start an EU Council Presidency

or, How an undiplomatic word can ruin your semester

Silvio Berlusconi, in beginning Italy's six-month presidency on 01 July 2003, ushered in a new low level of international diplomacy the next day with comments made at the European Parliament following his inaugural speech. The turmoil has spread beyond his own actions and has visibly weakened the current Italian government.

The institutional setting

The presidency of the Council of the European Union is held by a member state for six months according to a pre-determined formula (much too tedious to explain here, really; see Sources below if you are interested). Normally the president is the political leader of the member state in question, and his job is to provide the European Parliament with a series of goals for the duration of his appointment. The president is also responsible for convening regular meetings between member state ministries in five major areas: agriculture, as defined under the Common Agricultural Policy; foreign affairs and security, as defined in numerous Union treaties as the Common Foreign and Security Policy; finance, particularly European Monetary Union; trade policy, with important subsections including transport policy, environmental protection, and industry; as well as law enforcement. Italy was preceded by Greece in the position, and will be succeeded by Ireland on 01 January 2004.

Ordinarily the presidency is not terrifically interesting, even to member states and leaders holding the post, as there is a great deal of glacial negotiating that goes on seemingly without end. Invariably, internal policies are considered dull but necessary to the smooth functioning of the Common Market.

Outside the Union the presidency sports a foreign policy that can be best described as hand-wringing: terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian question, trade wars with the US and Japan, Yugoslavia ... normally the president is constrained by the need to maintain a semblance of consensus, hence the natural inclination to do very little.

The formalities

In analysing the furore that erupted afterwards, Berlusconi's speech to the Parliament was relatively ignored. I think that to do so here, however, would be a mistake. Why? Because if you ignore the speech, you will tend to think that the resulting stink was nothing more than a soap opera. Unfortunately for all Europeans, it is much more important than that. More to the point, Berlusconi's comments following his speech effectively pulped his presidency before it began.

Opening comments in Italian political circles often waste a bit of breath on either pointless digression or cheapshot attacks on enemies, regardless of political stripe, and this speech was no exception in both categories.

Getting down to business, however, Berlusconi outlined that he would work to further entrench European integration, specifically regarding the emerging Constitutional proposals developed by Valery Giscard d'Estaing. He also promised that he would try to listen more to those countries outside of the Eurozone, the UK, Sweden and Denmark, in order to entice them into joining the Euro.

In keeping with his conservative politics Berlusconi also underscored the importance of subsidiarity, the concept that all powers should devolve to the lowest levels possible in order to keep government close to its citizens. He called as well for more flexible labour markets, reduced protectionism, and a stronger set of law enforcement policies -- ironic given his murky background.

Of these comments the most important of these by far concern the Constitutional project, not least because the effort in drawing up a pan-European Charter has already been drawn up according to a very strict timetable.

The whiff of something unpleasant

Berlusconi has had a rough ride since returning to office in 2001. As detailed in the E2 biography, currently there is a trial looking into his activities during the 1980s. In preparation for Italy's Council presidency, the Italian Parliament or Camera dei Deputati passed a quick law exempting not only Berlusconi but also the President (not Berlusconi, but the respected Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, former Prime Minister and Governor of the Bank of Italy) and three other members of the Prime Minister's Cabinet, from the normal judicial process. Of these three, the most important of these is Gianfranco Fini, current Deputy Prime Minister and head of the government's coalition partner, Alleanza Nazionale. Reasons for mentioning Fini specifically are outlined below. Similar laws exist in France.

The effect of this new law has been to suspend, for the duration of Berlusconi's term in office, the 'IMI-SIR/Lodo Mondadori' trial mentioned above. In that same trial during April 2003, Mr Berlusconi's former lawyer and staunch governmental ally, Cesare Previti, was sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment on charges of corruption.

European, and to a lesser extent Italian*, press reaction to this exemption has been quite negative, branding Berlusconi a scoundrel, a liar, a possible accessory to murder, and generally a threat to democracy.

The fireworks

As Berlusconi entered the chamber several MEPs revealed small signs and banners with messages saying 'Nessun padrone per Europa' ('No godfather for Europe') and 'La legge è uguale per tutti' ('The law is equal for all').

Following the speech, the floor was opened to general questions from the assembly. At this point socialist and Green MEPs criticised Berlusconi for his newly-minted law, his legal difficulties, anti-immigrant regulations, and overwhelming media power in Italy as inappropriate for a leader of a Western democracy.

Focusing his opprobrium on Martin Schulz MEP, he said with a smile, 'Currently in production in Italy is a film on a concentration camp. I'd like to suggest you, Mr Schulz, for the role of Kapò (prisoner entrusted to perform drudge work, roughly equivalent to 'trusty'). You'd be perfect.'

Moving on, he then rounded on the Parliament as a whole:

'Maybe you don't know that in Italy the newspapers, but above all the television channels, that still belong to my group and my family, are among my biggest critics. Why? Obviously you miss the sun in Italy. You have never come here and turned on an Italian TV channel but you should know that every journalist's major preoccupation is that of appearing independent when compared to his colleagues, and this independence leads him to be highly critical of whoever he considers to be the boss. If this is the form of democracy that you intend to use to close the words of the President of the European Council, I can tell you that you should come as tourists to Italy but that here you seem more like tourists of democracy.'

Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini sat at Berlusconi's side for the duration of the speech. As Berlusconi started his attack Fini immediately raised his eyebrows, nearly to the hairline. Shocking as the comments were, for Fini they had an additionally poisonous taint. As leader of the Alleanza Nationale, Fini has worked for years to shift his party's position from the unacceptable edge of extreme right politics to a slightly more manageable conservative one. Before l'Alleanza and Fini, the party was called Movimento Sociale Italiano, or MSI for short, and was the heir apparent to Mussolini's legacy of fascism. This is not to say that Fini has been entirely successful -- in a 1994 interview he claimed that Mussolini was the greatest-ever Italian statesman -- but his distancing the party from its past is documented.

So watching his reaction to the speech was instructive. He pulled out a packet of Marlboro Lights, and held it to his nose, as if he could inhale away Berlusconi and make the problem vanish. As Berlusconi continued Fini got up and angrily walked off from his seat, as if unable to stomach the rhetoric any longer. He then approached Romano Prodi, current head of the European Commission, former Italian Prime Minister, and main Berlusconi foe, for a short exchange. Returning to his seat, he apparently asked the Prime Minister to apologise, a request echoed by the Irish European Parliament president, Pat Cox, who commented, 'Silvio, what the fuck have you done?!'**.

Fini immediately and openly repudiated Berlusconi afterwards, saying that

'Berlusconi had been quite provoked by Mr Schulz. Unfortunately, he took the bait. No comment (however) from a political adversary can justify the riposte of "Nazi prison guard". ... It would have been better for the Prime Minister to ask for an apology.'

Berlusconi stated later that his comments were meant ironically. Unfortunately for him, no one believed him, though the Italian press remarked sarcastically that now perhaps Europe had a real idea of what a pain in the arse the PM really was. He also painted himself as horrendously put-upon, arguing that there was a left-wing conspiracy between the Italian opposition and the international press to depose him, make up lies and misrepresent the truth.

EU aftershocks

The next morning, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder announced to the Bundestag that he expected an apology forthwith from Berlusconi. Which he duly received, though not without some of the usual unbelievable comments from Il Cavaliere+.

The European reaction to the comments was swift and practically unanimous. Berlusconi had crippled his presidency. German newspapers lambasted the Italian PM without exception, calling his presence at the highest continental table anomalous, unacceptable and the worst possible example to set for the new entrants to the EU from Eastern Europe.

To make matters worse, several days later a junior Italian minister remarked that German tourists were all haughty anyway and shouldn't bother coming to the country. Schroeder cancelled his Italian holiday and the Italian opposition left called for the junior minister's scalp, to no effect.

National strains

Proving Schulz and other international critics right about Berlusconi's iron grip on the media would not be difficult. But the coverage in Italy was something to behold. Of the three national RAI channels, the only one to show Berlusconi's fall from grace in its entirety was Rai Tre, long-held by his opponents. Of the three Mediaset channels owned by Berlusconi Rete 4 developed strange 'technical glitches', showing the clip initially without sound, while the anchor looked visibly agitated and under-the-gun. Newspapers owned by Berlusconi family members and their allies were uniformly focused on the initial Schulz 'outrage', not on the response it generated.

As if the international repercussions of Berlusconi's gaffe weren't enough, Fini and Marco Follini, the leader of the rump Christian Democrat party, privately grumbled that their support for the Casa di Liberta' (CdL) coalition was now in doubt. However, Berlusconi countered this with a stark appraisal of the situation: Arguing that political instability would only embarrass Italy internationally, he declared that President Ciampi would rather clean house with an appointed government of administrators (as happened in 1995 and 1996, under Lamberto Dini as technocrat-in-chief) than have the current leadership limp along to December. Berlusconi then swiftly convened a series of meetings to discuss their grievances, and in exchange for their continued allegiance, handed overarching control of economic policy to Fini. The latter also extracted consultations within the government from all parties.

However, this move only pissed off Umberto Bossi, leader of the separatist-minded, xenophobic and far-right Lega Nord or Northern League. The CdL government had already suffered mixed results in May regional elections when the trouble began, and Berlusconi's attempts at soothing one part of it soon created problems in others. Bossi was quoted in the week following as saying, 'Change direction or I'm off,' to which Fini replied, 'Ditch Bossi or I cut the Alliance loose.'


It is hard from this vantage point to see where this will all lead. The Italian EU presidency has been damaged beyond repair. In this space of five minutes Berlusconi effectively tarnished the European Union and made a mockery of it. Moreover, his own government is now openly engaging in civil war on itself, an unproductive exercise that will limit administration innovation at a time when clear leadership and vision are needed.

For the new European democracies set to enter the Union next year, a terrible example has been set. In the efforts to forge a new consensual Constitution for the European Union, member states have for some time argued that these new applicants will need to reform their legal codes to approximate Union ones. The problem is that Berlusconi demonstrates simply by his existence how ineffective that process truly is. If anything, his mouth has now eaten that Constitution and spat it out.


* I say this as two national newspapers are owned by Berlusconi relatives.
I have used predominantly English-language sources out of time constraints. Interested Italian speakers should consult as well
La Repubblica and la Corriere della Sera.
** Please see the double asterisked sources below, under 'Sources'.
Submitted for the Social Sciences Quest, 11 July 2003.
+ 'Il Cavaliere': Berlusconi was granted the equivalent of a knighthood some time ago, so his friends and enemies alike use 'the Knight' as a reference to the man.


The EU has its main web presence located at . Checking it out is strongly advised to anyone interested in the workings of this unique international institution.
Official EU PDF of the speech, in English:
London Review of Books, "Land without Prejudice", Anderson, Perry. 21 March 2002. Online at . Background document covering the first years of the Second Republic.
The Economist, 04 July 2003. "Berlusconi's blunder", online at
Corriere della Sera, 02 July 2003. 'Berlusconi al tedesco Schulz: "Kapò"' ('Berlusconi to German MEP Schulz: "Trusty"')
** :
La Repubblica, 03 July 2003. "Sedie vuote al pranzo d'onore governo italiano sotto processo" (Empty seat of honour - Italian government's trial by fire)