Silvio Slips Up

Silvio Berlusconi had a plan. Once Italy took over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union--which it did last week--the wildly controversial prime minister would launch his very own rehabilitation from his new bully pulpit. The world would come to see him for what he is. Not as a billionaire tycoon and flamboyant egotist who came to wealth and power via shady business deals and political payoffs. Rather, they would see him as a misunderstood and underestimated can-do visionary who reinvigorated the Italian economy and has grand schemes in mind for the EU, like bringing in Russia and maybe Israel as members. He would show his enemies. Yes, he is "Il Cavaliere": not the dastardly "black rider" painted by his detractors, but rather the white knight in shining armor riding once to Italy's and now to Europe's rescue.

Then along came Berlusconi's inaugural speech last Wednesday before the Euro--pean Parliament in Strasbourg, France. Heckled by protesters carrying placards that said, among other things, no godfather for europe, Berlusconi was delivering his speech when a German parliamentarian questioned his credentials for EU leadership--specifically citing Berlusconi's sponsorship of immunity legislation while on trial on bribery charges in Milan. Berlusconi, smiling gamely, told the German he would make a fine "kapo" at a Nazi concentration camp. Immediately, a vast wave of outrage crashed over Berlusconi, swamping his hopes for rehabilitation.

It was always going to be long shot. The circumstantial evidence against the man is pretty daunting. The billionaire media baron--he controls 90 percent of Italian television--has been fighting charges of bribery and accounting fraud for three years in a Milan courtroom. He has brazenly wielded his impressive majorities in the Italian Parliament to ram through patently convenient legislation granting himself immunity from prosecution.

However, viewed narrowly, and through the prism of a country that has averaged more than one government per year since World War II, Berlusconi's record at home after two years in office had made him not only popular, but a man to be reckoned with. He reformed the tax code, modernized the stultifying government bureaucracy and kept the economy growing while Europe slumped. As much as he may be derided abroad--as he is now, more than ever before--Berlusconi looks certain to outlast most of his would-be successors. Mix into all this his $16 billion fortune (35th on Forbes's richest list) and the sweep of his immense media empire, and it's no wonder that many Italians see Berlusconi as a great success story.

Was that ever going to be enough to earn respect abroad? He declines virtually all interviews, but he plainly believed it could. He especially thought that, as Italy assumed the EU presidency, he could take advantage of a higher profile. Given his flamboyant egocentrism, his plans for Europe were characteristically ambitious. His dearest hope still is to see the Union's new Constitution ratified in Rome. Beyond that, he aims to open debate on a controversial proposal to invite Russia (and possibly Israel) to join the EU. Already last week he began to push Europe to consider tough new restrictions on illegal immigration--an issue the Union has largely ducked. He dreams even of displacing Britain's Tony Blair as Europe's middleman in easing transatlantic tensions with the United States.

A successful EU presidency, he imagined, would be added proof that his corruption trial is in fact a witch hunt. He has long denounced the proceedings as little more than a "vendetta" waged by opposition parties and judges beholden to them--not without some justification. The evidence against him is considerable, and there are legitimate concerns about both his probity and his dominance of the Italian media during a period when he holds his country's highest office. Yet it's also true that his alleged crimes, some of them almost 20 years old, became an issue only when Berlusconi became prime minister. His argument: in the interest of fairness, it's time to rethink the conventional wisdom.

There is, arguably, more substance to the man than meets the eye. Unlike generations of Italian politicians, he's actually delivering on campaign promises. Projects that have been stagnant for decades--such as trying to save Venice with floodgates--are underway. He has assured southern Italians that they'll finally get their bridge connecting Sicily to the mainland--a long-deferred dream that promises to pump billions into the country's poorest provinces. He runs the country like one of his ultrasuccessful businesses. He has whittled away at the government's bureaucratic deadwood, eliminated many redundant agencies and unsnarled much of the red tape that has long made official business a nightmare. (Almost miraculously, for a country once considered a technological black hole, Italy now boasts one of the most wired "e-governments" on the continent, with Italians going online to file forms and get information at a rate far higher than most other European nations.) Italy's growth rate was.4 percent in the first quarter of the year, compared with .2 percent for France and near zero for Germany.

Berlusconi has given Italy a boost in other ways as well. He's offered provisional amnesty to draw workers in from Italy's huge black economy (variously estimated to account for a quarter to a third of the country's GDP) and broaden the government's tax base. He has just given low-income earners a modest tax cut. Berlusconi's pro-U.S. stand on Iraq has also yielded political advantages. Italian companies are benefiting from lucrative restructuring contracts in Iraq. Britain returned the favor by offering an endorsement of Berlusconi as he took the EU podium. Saying "Italy is a very functioning, healthy democracy and it will do good work," Europe Minister Denis MacShane said the corruption charges against Berlusconi were, as Berlusconi maintains, a political vendetta.

Emboldened by such support, Berlusconi set his sights on Europe. But even before last week's "kapo" outburst, he was unlikely to win European hearts and minds. This is a man who never leaves home without an entourage of bodyguards, makeup artists and his own television crew. (Taping his life is a matter of historical record, he insists.) At 5 feet 6, he makes sure his handlers always carry a collapsible lift to elevate him when he speaks. The weekly magazine Panorama, whose parent company he happens to own, recently touched up his bald spot to give him a full head of hair in its cover shot.

His plans for Europe were every bit as showy. At a time when anti-Americanism runs strong, he sought to be the bridge-builder between the United States and Europe. According to insiders, he believes that he, and only he, can repair the ties strained by the Iraq war. Blair, in his view, is isolated from the rest of Europe, in a way that he is not (at least not until Strasbourg), and that he therefore is in a better position to mediate the transatlantic relationship. Berlusconi has often said that he entered politics because he was "chosen" as "the Lord's anointed," and that no other Italian leader had his capacity and vision. "No one can compete with me on the world's stage," he has said repeatedly during campaign speeches.

Robed in his sense of destiny, Berlusconi seemed eager to tackle Europe-wide issues that require delicacy--like illegal immigration, much of it from North Africa. Since early June, the bodies of a dozen refugees have washed up on the shores of Italian seaside resorts--and perhaps 300 others are unaccounted for. If only to satisfy his rightmost allies in government, Berlusconi was prepared to force this issue onto the Brussels agenda.

Berlusconi's vision of an ever-larger European Union was also sure to spark controversy. He has long insisted that the only way the EU can compete with America is to recruit Russia and Israel. Once he holds the gavel of the presidency, he will no doubt pound on this message resoundingly.

His fondest hope was to see the new EU Constitution ratified when the Intergovernmental Conference meets in Rome in October. For him, it is a matter of pride, personal and national. After all, the 1957 Treaty of Rome was the foundation of the modern European Union. Privately, he's told supporters that he envisions a lavish ceremony showcasing Italian culture. There's even been talk of staging the Constitution-signing extravaganza in the Colosseum.

Now, after Strasbourg, will anybody even be listening?

Berlusconi has surprised before. Remember the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001, when he flew in lemon trees from the Amalfi coast and stapled fruit to the branches to impress visiting dignitaries? It's hard to imagine European leaders buying into Berlusconi's self-orchestrated rehabilitation, however. They certainly won't be encouraged to do so by European Commission President Romano Prodi, the former Italian prime minister who is one of Berlusconi's fiercest political rivals. Il Cavaliere is about to discover that repairing his reputation is going to be a lot harder than touching up a bald spot.