Berlusconi: don’t turn a scoundrel into a scapegoat

Whatever else he might have done, Italy’s prime minister is hardly to blame for Europe’s crisis of capitalism and political leadership.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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For many people, everything about Silvio Berlusconi appears to be a mixture of the ridiculous and the repulsive, from his petty-authoritarian politics to his sleazy financial and sexual shenanigans. It is hard to argue with that.

But there is more than Berlusconi’s preposterously inflated ego at stake today. There is nothing about the beleaguered preening Italian premier (possibly ex-premier by the time you read this) that is quite as ridiculous as the attempt to hold him personally responsible for the crisis of finance capitalism in Italy and Europe. And what is more objectionable than his political failings is the way they have been used as an excuse for the takeover of Italy’s elected government by international bankers and Euro-bureaucrats.

Berlusconi has now promised to stand down once the Italian parliament passes the austerity package demanded by the Eurozone. Many see the longed-for fall of Berlusconi as the one positive that might come out of the financial and economic problems in Italy, which has suddenly replaced Greece as the cockpit of the Eurozone crisis as the cost of borrowing for the Rome government soars and the need for a huge international bailout looms larger. For the left in Italy and across Europe, Berlusconi’s role as both arrogant right-wing politician and monopoly media magnate has made him the hate figure du jour. Sometimes he is even dubbed ‘Il Duce’ after the fascist leader Benito Mussolini; in British liberal circles he is viewed as a sort-of cross between Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch.

Nor is such Berlusconi-bashing by any means confined to the left. Top business journal The Economist, for example, has fought a long-running feud with Italy’s longest-serving prime minister since Mussolini, culminating earlier this year when, with Berlusconi embroiled in another sex scandal, the magazine ran a caustic assessment of his era in government headlined ‘The man who screwed an entire country’ (geddit?). This week, market analysts insisted that Italy has ‘a Berlusconi problem, not a financing problem’.

Yet on slightly closer inspection, the notion that Berlusconi is personally responsible for Italy’s problems – and by extension for a big part of the Eurozone’s current crisis – looks about as convincing as his hair dye and fake tan.

Nominally ranked as Europe’s fourth-largest economy, the repercussions of a financial collapse in Italy under the weight of debt repayments would indeed have far bigger consequences for the Eurozone than the problems in Greece. However, the underlying problems remain the same in Italy as across Europe: not just a financial crisis of government debt, but a profound economic crisis of stagnant growth and a general political crisis of ineffective leadership struggling to cope with the disaster. Berlusconi looks less like Europe’s odd man out than a man of his time.

Horrified headlines this week have focused on Italy’s €1.8 trillion debt and the €300 billion interest due next year, which will reportedly prove unsustainable if the rates it has to borrow at continue to soar. Yet, as The Economist conceded in its June feature about how Berlusconi ‘screwed’ Italy, in important respects Italy’s economy remains unexceptional: ‘The unemployment rate is eight per cent, compared with over 20 per cent in Spain. The [annual] budget deficit in 2011 will be four per cent of GDP, against six per cent in France.’ The problem is not simply the debt as such, but the absence of any dynamic economic growth that would enable countries such as Italy to cope with it.

Berlusconi has come under fire for being ‘in denial’ about the extent of Italy’s economic problems as he has tried to keep the grinning song-and-dance act going for the cameras. He was ridiculed at the G20 summit in Cannes for insisting that all was basically well because Italians were still eating in restaurants and flying in planes. That was the sort of ludicrous Panglossism that all of the leaders of the Western world kept up during the years of credit-fuelled expansion, claiming that this time the boom was not going bust. Berlusconi’s mistake is to try to maintain the falsely youthful bravado when others of his generation of leaders have accepted the need to pull more serious faces.

Yet behind their sterner expressions today, the leaders of the rest of Europe also appear to be ‘in denial’ about the roots and the extent of their problems. The apparent obsession of figures such as Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy with debt repayments and financial tinkering ignores the fundamental problem of stagnating growth across Europe (including in the UK), which is making the debts unmanageable and exacerbating the tensions between Germany and the weaker members of the Eurozone. Berlusconi, the grinning buffoon, can hardly be held responsible for those historic problems of Euro-capitalism, any more than ousted Greek leader Papandreou.

Of course, Berlusconi has been ineffectual in his response to the crisis, spending much of his energy rowing with his finance minister over the latter’s attempt to enforce further austerity measures. Yet what is uniquely bad about that? For all of their endless rolling summits and the ever-lengthening list of zeroes on the end of their promised cheque, Europe’s most powerful leaders have achieved little or nothing of substance to date.

Just this week another ‘crucial’ meeting of finance ministers failed to agree how they could raise the hundreds of billions pledged for the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) – the expanded bailout fund recently hailed as the answer to the Eurozone’s problems. As one top banker commented, the EFSF ‘may still turn into a bazooka but so far it looks more like a water pistol’. To borrow a line from The Godfather, it looks as if Berlusconi may be far from the only European leader walking into a gunfight with nothing but his dick in his hand.

Berlusconi is exactly the sort of empty, useless figurehead that European capitalism deserves today. Yet his inadequacies have proved a cover for the further advance of a far more dangerous tendency in European politics: the effective takeover of democratically elected governments by unaccountable central bankers and Euro-bureaucrats, as previously discussed on spiked. While the spotlight has been on the takeover of more peripheral economies such as Ireland and Greece, Italy, too, has been the target of creeping economic colonialism.

Thus in the summer the European Central Bank wrote secretly to Berlusconi’s government demanding that ‘bold and immediate action’ to cut public spending and reform the labour market was ‘essential’ before the ECB could help to lower Italy’s debt burden. It read like a bailiffs’ demand to indebted tenants, only aimed at a sovereign government. At the Cannes summit last week, the Italians were among those taken aside and pressed for action on spending cuts by the new unofficial cabal that now rules the Eurozone – the ‘Frankfurt Group’ or, as Reuters dubbed it, ‘Europe’s new Politburo’, comprising ‘the leaders of Germany and France, the presidents of the European Commission and of the European Council of EU leaders, the heads of the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the chairman of Eurozone finance ministers, and the European commissioner for economic and financial affairs’.

This week, the men in suits from a European Commission (EC) monitoring team are due in Rome to ensure that whoever is in government does as they are told in imposing unpopular counter-crisis measures. The Financial Times reports that ‘in advance of the mission, Olli Rehn, [EC] commissioner for economic affairs, had written to Giulio Tremonti, finance minister, with a detailed questionnaire covering some 40 budget-related issues, which Italian officials have until the end of the week to answer’. Meanwhile, TV news reports that ‘the markets’ are calling for ‘a government of technocrats’ to run Italy as accountants and keep anything as dirty as democratic politics away from their nice clear spreadsheets.

Now that Berlusconi appears finally to have succumbed to pressure to quit this time, there will doubtless be much celebrating. Those on the left who have long preferred to try to defeat him by winning over judges in court rather than voters at the polls will have few qualms about seeing their bête noir deposed by other unelected figures. But that is far too high a price to pay.

Whatever follies Berlusconi may be guilty of, it should be up to the Italian people, not the elite members of the ‘Frankfurt Group’, to decide his fate – and, more importantly, their own future. Yet even if an election is called, what choices would they really be offered? Democracy must involve alternatives. And who is even discussing such political matters in an age when the talk from Athens to Rome is of politics-free governments of national unity/technocrats?

Berlusconi is a scoundrel who we have no wish to defend. But that is no reason to allow him to be turned into a scapegoat for the crisis of Euro-capitalism and political leadership. After all, take away the bandanas, hair dye, bunga-bunga parties and Facebook rants, and what’s the real difference between him and the rest of the impotent poseurs masquerading as statesmen today?

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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