Feeling The Heat

Imagine this. The president of the European Union is hosting a historic summit. Exhorting fellow ministers to admit Russia to the European Union, he brandishes an emphatic fist in the air--where the lights of the world's assembled TV networks catch his electronic-surveillance bracelet. As if that were not embarrassing enough, the president's military escorts have been replaced by prison guards who stay by his side at all times, making it slightly awkward to schmooze with other leaders. The debates are held at a record clip, too. After all, the president has to be back in his cell by sundown--rules of the prison furlough.

It won't really be as bad as all that for Silvio Berlusconi. But Italy's bad-boy prime minister is in another fix--and this time so is Europe. The telegenic billionaire statesman-cum-potential felon is losing ground in his three-year-old bribery trial. A verdict looks likely just as he takes the helm of the European Union in July. If convicted--and he may well be--Berlusconi would be barred by law from leaving the country while awaiting sentence or lodging an appeal. Think of that: the EU president, unable to travel in Europe. And even if he gets around that technicality, imagine the reception; he's already been called "unfit to lead Europe" by The Economist magazine. For the ever-slippery Mr. B., the only way out may be political immunity. His majority party is pushing two such bills through Parliament even now. "Not in the name of my alleged personal interests," says the P.M., "but in those of the nation." No doubt.

By now, Italians are accustomed to the corruption capers of their politicians. Never mind that Berlusconi has faced more accusations of bribery, fraud and other unseemly activity than any sitting prime minister in Italy's history. His approval ratings remain high; if elections were held now, polls say he'd win hands down. Nor is he the only world leader in hot water. French President Jacques Chirac, for one, also counts on political immunity to keep himself and his cohorts --out of court. Still, Berlusconi is for now the only sitting European leader in the dock--and quite a circus it has been.

The charges are very serious. Berlusconi faces accusations of bribing judges to block the sale of a state food company to a business foe in the 1980s. Legal experts rate the chance of conviction as "very, very high." Magistrates showed their teeth earlier this month by convicting Berlusconi's former attorney and longtime friend and business partner, Cesare Previti, and sentencing him to 11 years for crimes similar to those with which Berlusconi is charged. Newspapers called Previti's conviction "the antipasto" to Berlusconi's.

He may yet slip out of the mess. After all, Berlusconi has 80 lawyers and the majority of the government working for him. Their latest move: calling an additional 1,800 people--most of them high-level politicos--as defense witnesses, though the judges may deny most of those so late in the trial. Meanwhile, members of his ruling coalition are pushing possible rescue plans in Parliament. Recent legislation does everything from shortening the statute of limitations to lessening the gravity of crimes like false accounting (in the process making Italy one of the best places in the world to be a white-collar criminal). Thanks to their efforts, at least two unrelated charges against Berlusconi have been dropped. And lawmakers just introduced a pair of new immunity proposals. One blocks trials against any of the top five leaders in the country; the other grants immunity to all members of Parliament. Opposition leaders vow to hold up the debate and stop the immunity bills on the ground that they are unconstitutional. "Berlusconi talks of immunity," says opposition leader Piero Fassini. "What he really wants is impunity."

Berlusconi zealously maintains his innocence, complaining that he is being "judicially persecuted" by communists and political opponents--a claim that may not be entirely unfounded, given the extraordinary number of official inquiries (87) that have been opened against him. Drawing on his extensive media holdings, he has launched a massive public-relations blitz on television, radio and in the country's main newspapers. Berlusconi hints that he expects conviction but declares he will not step down. Instead he threatens to call snap elections, which would in effect pit the magistrates against the prime minister.

However this battle turns out at home, Europeans elsewhere are aghast, not only at Berlusconi himself but by the evidence of just how far Italy has sunk. A recent best seller on the continent, "The Dark Heart of Italy," by Tobias Jones, paints a grim picture. Branding Berlusconi as "the great seducer," the de facto "owner of Italy," it estimates his worth at $14 billion, making him the richest man in Italy and the third wealthiest in Europe. Among his assets: three national television channels, a football club and the giant Mondadori publishing house. According to Jones, "If you watch football matches, or television, try to buy a house or a book or a newspaper, rent a video or else simply shop in a supermarket, the chances are you're somehow filling the coffers of Il Cavaliere."

Italians may not have taken Berlusconi seriously when he pledged to resolve conflicts of interest between his private television empire and the responsibility of running Italy's state media--not to mention the state itself. But other Europeans did, especially fellow heads of government. Two years later the issue is still untouched, and it's fair to say that few if any European leaders would be sorry to see Berlusconi convicted.

Indeed, the prospect that the EU's rotating presidency will turn to Italy six weeks from now is hugely disconcerting, not only for reasons of Berlusconi's alleged criminality. His proposed EU agenda includes a host of delicate issues, from sponsoring Russia (as well as Israel) for membership in the Union to smoothing Europe-U.S. relations. In March, French President Chirac accused the Italian of "wasting everyone's time" by bringing up such topics for debate. Last week Berlusconi threw out another bomb, when before the court in Milan he tried to implicate the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, in his alleged crimes. "It's not my trial," Prodi shrugged. But neither he nor anyone else could relish being caught up in Berlusconi's judicial carnival.

Trouble is, that's just what's happening. Barring a last-minute fix, or a surprise acquittal, Berlusconi's trial will almost certainly drag out through summer, if not longer. At worst, Prodi will have to stand arm in arm with Berlusconi for six months as they represent Europe to the world. The Corriere della Sera warns of a rough road ahead for both Italy and the EU. "You could not imagine a more explosive start for the odd couple who have to smile and lead Europe very soon," Italy's leading newspaper writes. Berlusconi may get one wish, though. He wants desperately to host a summit in Rome to sign the new European Constitution, due toward the end of June. If criminal travel restrictions apply, that may actually be all he's able to do.