Bad, Bad Boy

Open mouth, insert foot. that has long seemed Silvio Berlusconi's patented political style. The Italian prime minister has been pratfalling his way across the world's stage ever since he took office last May in one of the most controversial and scandal-pocked elections Europe has ever seen. His fellow European leaders have done their best to ignore him, raising skeptical eyebrows at his more egregious antics but otherwise politely sidelining him. It's as though he were the unsavory closet cousin at a grand dinner--to be seen, regrettably, but not heard.

Poor Silvio. He may come to miss those days. Abruptly, in less than a week, the repressed forbearance of old has flashed into angry criticism across continental Europe. Ministers have melted down in puddles of diplo-speak, labeling him and his government "irresponsible," "adolescent," "disappointing." Once rather a joke, Berlusconi has morphed into something darker--an obstructionist troublemaker, a sort of Eurocratic Darth Vader, a potential Disrupter of Grand European Plans. The worries run so deep that Europe's elder statesman, former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, flew specially to Rome last week to see him. The Spanish foreign minister pounded on his door, bearing urgent missives from President Jose Maria Aznar. The Italian Parliament meets this week to discuss his policies, while political pundits and signori in the street speculate about his untimely political end. "The government will fall," predicts a seller of newspapers in Rome. "If he makes a mistake now, it's all over."

Was it something he said? Well, yes. It all began last week, fittingly, with the introduction of Europe's newfangled currency. Something to celebrate? Not in Italy, apparently. Save Euro-phoria for "primates waving banners, faith healers, shamans, miracle workers and bankers," grumbled Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, Berlusconi's political amanuensis. His offhanded dismissal of the latest and perhaps greatest step toward Europe's political and economic integration was echoed by others in Berlusconi's government--to deep dismay elsewhere. Hitherto, Italy had long been counted upon as a pillar of what Europhiles call "ever closer union." Did the attitudes of Berlusconi's lieutenants reflect a change of policy? From Paris to Brussels, ministries furiously demanded explanations.

Rather than offer reassurance, Berlusconi played the gadfly. When his stalwartly pro-Europe foreign minister, Renato Ruggiero, resigned in protest, he happily appointed himself in Ruggiero's place. Techies call it multitasking: a prime minister and foreign minister, all in one. Arriving to assume his responsibilities at the Foreign Ministry, Berlusconi was full of cocksure bluster: "I'm the right man in the right job."

Il Cavaliere, as Italians call him, is hardly new to such tempest. Indeed, he seems drawn to it. His tenure has been marked not just by whiffs of corruption. (Berlusconi has been embroiled in 10 different criminal cases ranging from bribery to tax evasion over the past five years.) Somehow, he manages to muff most important occasions of state. His first public foray as PM came at the G8 summit in Genoa. Three days of violent riots culminated in the shooting death of a young protester by security forces instructed to maintain public order at all costs. Berlusconi's response: to applaud the police for their tact and restraint. Then came September 11. As other allied ministers worked to assure a suspicious Arab world that the war in Afghanistan was not a crusade against Islam, Berlusconi spoke out. "We should be confident in the superiority of our civilization," he declared in a speech in Germany, prompting gasps from the West--and shaking fists elsewhere. "He doesn't really know much about the ways of the world," explained a columnist and noted author, Beppe Severgnini. "He knows about Italian business and politics and back rooms."

Small wonder he's not much welcomed in grander places. He has tried to crash European mini-summits in France and Britain, including a dinner with Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street--to which he showed up not only uninvited but late. In December he nixed a deal to participate in plans to build a European military transport plane. (A "hesitation," French proponents of the project gamely describe it, and not a "determinative obstacle.") More recently he resisted Europe's efforts to craft a common European arrest warrant, caving only reluctantly and under strenuous pressure. And at last month's summit in Laeken, where the 15 members of the European Union agreed to host a constitutional convention, beginning March 1, to hammer out a common vision of Europe's future, Berlusconi ended up in a petty row with the Finns over where to locate a new European food-safety administration. Helsinki or Parma? "They don't even know what prosciutto is up there," he groused.

Minor flaps, perhaps. But for those bent on building a bigger, more integrated Europe, they are troubling signs. Now come Berlusconi's ministers, dissing the newborn euro--pointedly without rebuke from the prime minister. If anything, he appears to have given them license to lash out at some of the most sacred Europeanist ideals. Almost casually, Finance Minister Tremonti told reporters last week that Italy has ditched the once honored vision of a single European superstate. A "romantic idea," he scoffed, best replaced by a "union of nation-states." Berlusconi's controversial coalition partner, Umberto Bossi, was equally quick to vent his known anti-Europe sentiments, while Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's European Affairs minister, went so far as to suggest that it was perhaps time to rethink Europe's leadership and direction. "Italy should be more assertive," he told the BBC. "There is space for more than two coleaders." No one missed that swipe at France and Germany, whose lead Italy has tamely followed for so long.

The question is, what now? Will Berlusconi's Italy continue to follow the dream of a federal Europe, sketched out over decades in Paris and Berlin? Or will it change course, perhaps to ally more closely with the so-called Euro-skeptics, namely Britain, which envisage a Europe of nations, integrated more economically than politically? Europe's leaders rightly sense a potentially profound shift, rattling many well-laid plans. Hence the spectacle of Giscard d'Estaing, who will head Europe's upcoming constitutional convention, rushing to Berlusconi's offices. "That's why I am in Rome," he said at the prime minister's doorstep. "To meet him and get his position on Europe." As for the man himself, Berlusconi brushed aside doubts of his commitment to Europe as "ridiculous." In fact, he added, unable to restrain himself, "Italy has a passion for Europe. A passion that is superior to everyone else."

Oops. There's that foot again.