Former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi received a royal treatment in Brussels this week, although few people noticed. They should have paid more attention because il Cavaliere will probably end up deciding the political landscape of Italy later this year.
You had to visit his Facebook page to see Berlusconi embracing Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (before his stomach flu kicked in, obviously) in the emblematic presence of Antonio Tajani.
Then there were his lunches with the EPP top brass, his cosying up with Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier and with media Commissioner Mariya Gabriel.
Berlusconi may no longer own AC Milan, he sold it to Chinese investors last year, but he is still the capo of a media empire.
No photo was published on the Commission website, nor were there any tweets. Conversely, Berlusconi’s twitter account was very active. This is how the photo novel of his Brussels city trip became plain to see.
Commission chief spokesperson Margaritis Schinas was very shy when asked about Berlusconi’s contacts with the members of the EU executive. Journalists asked him why so much attention had been spent on a man who has been convicted for tax fraud in Italy, excluded from the Italian parliament as MP and is ineligible in elections.
Furthermore, he is accused of bribing a ‘bunga bunga’ witness in an under-age prostitution case.
Schinas said that he was “lost in the meanders” of such a question, and that Juncker was meeting Berlusconi in his capacity of someone who has twice been prime minister of Italy, and that there was no room for reading too much into something that is “really straightforward”. He then dodged a follow-up question about Luxembourg tax rulings.
So if Mr Berlusconi is such an embarrassment, why such a reception?
The reason is quite simple. Not only is Forza Italia a sister party to the EPP, of which Juncker was the Spitzenkandidat, but Berlusconi is widely perceived to be the one who will name the next Italian prime minister. Italy will vote on 4 March in an election expected to produce a hung parliament.
An uneasy conservative alliance, which includes Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord and also the extreme-right Brothers of Italy, is polling at around 37%, meaning it would win most seats in parliament.
As a guarantee that this alliance would not open the door to destructive policies, such as a referendum against the euro, Berlusconi is readying Tajani as his candidate for prime minister.
The president of the European Parliament has had a Brussels career since 1994, the year when he also became one of the founders of Forza Italia. He has built a pro-EU image and could actually protect Italy from the appetites of the coalition partners.
Berlusconi is no longer emperor but might bestow the laurel wreath on the next one.
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