Opposites Attract

They call him "La Mortadella," after the pink, bland sausage from his hometown of Bologna. As prime minister, Romano Prodi preferred commuter trains to limos and famously ran his 1996 election campaign out of a secondhand schoolbus that he often drove himself. And now? He's president of the stodgy European Commission, the citadel of rules, red tape and "Eurocracy." Snore.

Contrast this to the man he beat--Italy's current P.M., Silvio Berlusconi, who travels in a fleet of chauffeur-driven luxury cars and buzzes around Europe in a private jet. No matter what he does--from insulting German tourists to rewriting Italian law to his personal benefit--Berlusconi bedazzles his countrymen. Allegations of corruption, bribery and illegal bookkeeping? They are every bit as grave as those lodged against, say, Enron officials in the United States. But far from shocking the nation, they've served only to burnish his almost cult standing. According to political polls, the only modern Italian politician to ever before enjoy such popularity is... La Mortadella himself.

Almost as fate would have it, these utterly disparate pols are set to clash. Prodi is positioning himself for a run to become Italy's next prime minister, which could come at any time between now and 2006, when Berlusconi's term expires. Already he's meeting frequently with opposition party leaders. Italy's leftie press, particularly, is full of encomiums to Prodi and the possibilities he presents for Italy's future. His term as European commissioner ends next year. After that, says a spokesman, "Prodi is a free man. He can, and will, do as he pleases."

Berlusconi's strengths are obvious. He's Italy's richest man, titan of a great media empire. Italians forgive him his lapses, just as they admire his unconventional effervescence and edgy business tactics. The secret of Prodi's appeal, on the other hand, is his record. His time in office marked Italy's resurgence as a European economic and political force. In the cycle of Italy's oft-rotating prime ministerships, his center-left government lasted longer than any other. And Prodi succeeded where none had before. He tamed an unruly, stagnating economy and joined the eurozone. He revamped a sodden government bureaucracy and went after corruption. "Prodi ran the tightest government Italy has yet seen," says political analyst Franco Pavoncello in Rome. Italians remember that he made them proud--of themselves and their country.

The rest of Europe is watching, warily, as the battle shapes up. That's not merely because most European leaders dislike Berlusconi and would welcome his ouster. More important, they fear the growing rivalry between the men will play out on issues of broad importance to the whole of Europe. Halfway through Italy's turn at the rotating presidency of the European Union, Berlusconi has set an aggressive agenda that includes ratifying a controversial new Constitution and pumping new life into Europe's stagnating economy. Should Christianity be enshrined as Europe's official religion? Will the Europe of the future be federal, with strong central powers, or a looser economic association of nation-states that retain key sovereignties in defense and foreign relations, among others? Put aside for the moment where the pair stand on the issues. The important point is that Prodi has more than enough clout to frustrate Berlusconi's ambitions. If done partly in hopes of tarnishing his rival's image at home, Europeans worry, how might that affect their own interests? "There's both bad blood and political rivalry between these two," says John Harper of Johns Hopkins University in Bologna. "That doesn't bode well for Europe."

So far, the signs are indeed not good. The two may be sharing the leadership of Europe just now. But neither has exhibited the least inclination to work together. During Italy's first three months at the helm of the EU, they did not meet once. Prodi, in particular, busied himself with domestic politics, huddling with leftist and centrist party leaders. After one such confab, former prime minister Massimo D'Alema declared Prodi to be the opposition's "best hope" for ousting Berlusconi--possibly in exchange for a promise that he would become foreign minister in any new government. Not coincidently, Berlusconi-owned television channels have been trumpeting compromising allegations concerning Prodi's purported involvement in shady business dealings, charges that Prodi has dismissed as smears. The prime minister's weekly newsmagazine Panorama went so far as to pair Slobodan Milosevic and Prodi on its cover. Prodi lashed back, charging that Berlusconi's campaign "once more poses strongly the question of freedom and pluralism of information and the link between media ownership and politics."

Now barely on speaking terms, they rely on underlings to carry out crucial EU business. At an EU summit last week in Rome, Berlusconi notably snubbed his rival by offering only a rather cool handshake--in contrast to hearty hugs and pecks on the cheek for Tony Blair and other leaders. Such games could have big consequences for Europe. Berlusconi dreams of ratifying the new EU Constitution in Rome next year, at the site of the original 1957 treaty creating modern Europe. The grandly named Convention of the Future of Europe has done its work. (Some say well.) Now it's time for national leaders and parliaments to take over--some to challenge its basic tenets, others to quibble with fine print. Either way, the stakes are large, says Pat Cox, leader of the European Parliament, who warned in Rome that tinkering too much with the proposed draft could mean the failure of the whole effort. A constitution that represents a "miserable common denominator," amended to death, he said, could well be more difficult to pass than the original. And as everyone is aware, one "no" vote, by any nation, sinks the entire enterprise.

Where do Prodi and Berlusconi stand? Poles apart, it seems. Take the nettlesome issue of "smalls" versus "bigs," now roiling the waters of European comity. In a nutshell, many of the Union's smaller countries claim that the proposed Constitution skews voting rights too heavily toward large states, and that they will thus be steamrolled in the new Europe. Prodi tends to agree, even though he insists that key decisions should not require unanimity, as they have in the past. Berlusconi, when asked about the matter, suggested recently that most EU members are "not prepared to revisit what has already been discussed." In his opinion, Europe's big powers have every right to call the shots in the Union--a position obviously favored by the likes of France and Britain, if not by the new members standing at Europe's door.

A similar debate is roaring over religion. As it stands, Europe's draft Constitution includes no reference to it. Italy, Spain, Ireland and Poland want to change that and declare Christianity an essential feature of European polity. Berlusconi agrees, recently telling a Verona daily that Christianity is the "real cultural cement of Europe." So does Prodi, a devout Roman Catholic. But there they sharply part company. For Berlusconi, it seems, Europe has no place for Muslim nations such as Turkey, which seeks membership in the Union. Prodi believes Turkey should be admitted, as long as it fulfills the EU's standards regardless of religion. Their disagreement, at bottom, could thus shape the future of European enlargement.

Relations with the United States are involved as well. During the war in Iraq, Berlusconi flaunted his pro-Americanism in open defiance of many other European leaders and the sentiments of his own voters. He considers himself a White House insider who has Bush's ear and can weigh in on key issues from trade to NATO. As befits the subtle Eurocrat, Prodi is clearly wary of American imperialism. He has consistently warned against relying too much on the United States, economically or militarily. He has also argued that a united Europe could "counterbalance" U.S. superpower, as the French have done. Taking over the EU presidency, Berlusconi vowed to patch up the fractured transatlantic relationship, so far with little to show for it. Prodi shrugged off suggestions that Europe should try to bridge the gap and ease tensions. It's symbolic that, on the one and only occasion when Prodi met the U.S. president, Bush persisted in calling him "Roman" instead of Romano.

How all this will play out remains open to conjecture. If an election were held tomorrow, according to some left-leaning polls, Prodi would win by 10 points. Unsurprisingly, polls conducted by Berlusconi's loyalists show just the opposite. Much may depend on the economy. Growth has stalled. (The national statistics agency ISTAT recently declared Italy to be officially in recession.) Consumer confidence is low. Inflation is rising. Unemployment has hit 9.8 percent, higher than it was when Prodi took over in 1996. On the face of it, that would augur well for Prodi's comeback. Time to put his proven management and governing skills to good use, once again, to save the country.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to underestimate Berlusconi. If the country's economy is sputtering, he can blame it on the global downturn. And if Italy's EU presidency is seen as a failure, his vast media machine can blame an uncooperative European Commission. No matter what happens, it's going to be a bruising matchup. For Europeans, the question is less who takes the hardest hits, but rather who pays the price.