Tribune 20 March 2015
Uncovering the priorities of the land that gave birth to Berlusconi
Written By: Denis MacShane
Published: March 20, 2015
I once sat at a European Council lunch – bad food, worse wine and everyone was allowed to smoke – as Silvio Berlusconi ranted on and on and on about the importance of some minor European Union subsidy for milk produced in Lombardy.
For the dodgy (that good but untranslatable English word now brilliantly resurrected by Ed Miliband to describe the Tory Party financing by tax dodgers and sleazy casino capitalists) Italian prime minister, the importance of cosseting his northern Italian cows was elevated into a central question of the very existence of Italy and the EU.
As Britain was about to bury its EU credentials by invading Iraq, Berlusconi’s insistence that cow subsidies was the most important issue facing Europe’s decision-takers seemed more than odd.
Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, puffed on his Havana cigar, turned to me and asked in German how long the Italian was likely to talk. “Silvio doesn’t do silenzio”,’I replied, at which Schröder left his cigar and walked out of the room in disgust at the pantomime performance of the Italian leader.
Yet Berlusconi dominated Italian politics for 20 years – longer than a de Gaulle or a Thatcher. Today a 39-year-old reformer, Matteo Renzi, is Italy’s prime minister. Berlusconi started on the left and Renzi started on the socially-aware Christian democratic right. Let us see how he does.
“It is not impossible to govern Italy, just pointless”, observes another Italian leader quoted in John Hooper’s entrancing narrative about what Italy is and who Italians are.
Hooper is a long-standing foreign correspondent for The Guardian but since that paper gave up reporting Europe, he now pours his considerable talent into this book and writing for the Economist.
For Eurosceptics, Italy should be a model for the EU. Metternicht said Italy did not exist and was merely a “geographical expression”, much as Tory-UKIP politicians today say that the EU cannot and should not exist.
But Italy has proved its nay-sayers wrong. It remains regional, with impenetrable dialects, with its football team(s) commanding more support than the army or any leader. Its politics is corrupt, but is it worse than our belief that it is OK to make money-men legislators if they pay enough to political parties? Not even Berlusconi dared put tax-dodgers into the Italian parliament in exchange for a large cheque.
Italians worship good food, good football and their mothers. There are worse priorities for a nation to have.