The Italian prime minister is not the man to speak for the European Union
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ON JULY 1st, Italy becomes president of the European Union. It is a six-monthly handing over of the baton that elicits no excitement at all in normal circumstances, but these days the circumstances are not quite normal. Politically, Europe is split. Economically, it is sputtering. The war in Iraq has lacerated relations with its main ally, the United States. Ten newcomers are about to join the club and, if the expanded Union is not to find itself paralysed, agreement must be reached on a new constitution. It is plainly time for clear-sightedness, diplomatic finesse and the exercise of the sort of moral authority that comes with ungrudging respect. Can Italy offer such leadership? Or, rather, can its prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi?
Our answer is no. Two years ago, when Mr Berlusconi was campaigning for the Italian prime ministership, we explained why we thought he was unfit for that job. We argued that, in addition to the many conflicts of interest between his own businesses and the affairs of state that would arise were he to be elected, he also had a compelling case to answer on a string of grave charges. Though Italy's highest criminal court has not definitively convicted him on any of those charges, he has yet to lay to rest all the concerns about his probity.
One reason for that is the manner in which the cases against Mr Berlusconi have been concluded. Most have owed less to clear-cut acquittals based on the evidence than to Italy's statute of limitations, or to recent changes in legislation apparently designed to benefit the prime minister as a defendant. These changes, pushed through a parliament dominated by a pro-Berlusconi majority, have included a law on judicial co-operation with foreign jurisdictions (with implications for at least one case against Mr Berlusconi), a measure to reduce the seriousness of some types of false accounting by making them civil rather than criminal offences (another three cases), and a law to let defendants seek to have their trials moved to another jurisdiction if they have a “legitimate suspicion” that the court handling their case may be biased (which could be used to spin out a trial and thus to help defendants benefit from a statute of limitations). This last law was unsuccessfully invoked by Mr Berlusconi in the one criminal case that is still outstanding, which explains why he was in court this week denying accusations of bribing judges back in 1985.
The allure of immunity
That trial will continue for several months, well into the Italian presidency of the EU and raising the possibility, on the basis of this week's form, that it will become a battleground between the current prime minister and one of his predecessors, Romano Prodi, who is now president of the European Commission. But Mr Berlusconi's allies seem to be more worried about the possibility of a guilty verdict. Last week one of his closest friends and political allies, Cesare Previti, was sentenced to 11 years in jail for corruption. Now there is talk of parliament's passing a law to grant immunity from criminal prosecution to those with “high state roles”. Such a law might ease the discomfiture of Mr Berlusconi's supporters at home. It would do nothing for his wider reputation abroad.
Instead, parliament might usefully be turning its attention to Mr Berlusconi's conflicts of interest. These have been a real or potential embarrassment since before his first prime ministership nine years ago, and it seemed incredible that simple decency had not ensured a resolution by the 2001 election. But Mr Berlusconi seems to find it hard to distinguish between propriety and proprietor. Nearly two years after taking office for the second time, a promised law to tackle his conflicts of interest has yet to be enacted. In the meantime, though Mr Berlusconi exercises huge influence over the state broadcaster, RAI, his family has yet to divest itself of Italy's three largest private television channels.
Mr Berlusconi says he is the victim of a communist plot (, which he is suing for libel, is apparently a part of it), and the judiciary is biased against him. Some Italian magistrates are no doubt left-wingers; it would be odd if that were not so, in a country in which political partisanship has long permeated almost every public institution. But Italy also has right-wing magistrates, and in any event it is possible to hold political views and yet dispense impartial justice. If Mr Berlusconi is indeed the victim of a plot, he needs to show the world his evidence. The proper way to do that, for a man in his position, is to step down from his public post and defend himself in court. If and when he has fully cleared his name, Europeans may feel easier about having him speak for Europe.