Given his squeaky-clean image, Barack Obama is probably not thrilled about the prospect of clasping hands with sex-scandal-plagued Silvio Berlusconi next week as the Italian prime minister hosts the G8 summit in Italy. Berlusconi, dogged by allegations of sex with minors, hiring prostitutes and organising lavish orgies at his Sardinian villa, will probably be uncomfortable company for all of the G8 leaders, especially for the lone female leader, Angela Merkel. After the stories that have been unveiled about the prime minister’s treatment of women, she’s probably going to feel pretty uncomfortable standing next to the 72-year-old Lothario.
Considering the huge blow this scandal has dealt to Italy’s image abroad (which Berlusconi has bizarrely blamed on foreign media rather than on his own behaviour), this is going to be an awkward few days. But add to that the hugely controversial “vigilante justice” law passed by the Italian parliament yesterday, which will allow citizen patrols to dole out punishments on the street, and you’ve got a hugely important meeting happening in a country that observers fear is edging closer and closer toward a return to fascism.
In reality, the expectations for this summit are not very high. The meeting is sandwiched between the more important G20 summits in London and Pittsburgh where actual policy on the financial crisis was and will be devised. There will eb some important statements on climate change during this summit, but those policy shifts were dictated by Obama, not Berlusconi. And on development and aid, there is likely to be little in the way of commitment, and even the location of this meeting seems insultingly absurd in that area considering Italy has one of the worst reputations in the Western world for meeting aid commitments, cutting its aid to poor countries by 56 percent this year.
Italy is now so concerned about its rapidly deteriorating image abroad that the president this week begged his country's politicians and journalists to protect Italy's international reputation international reputation by ceasing all talk about the prime minister's sex scandals. Italy's media, which is mostly owned by media tycoon Berlusconi, may be only too happy to comply. But it's unlikely the foreign press will
Though Berlusconi has tried to make the location of this year’s summit reflect a global mood of “sobriety and solidarity” by moving it to the central Italian region of L’Aquila – battered by a devastating earthquake last year – it’s likely that to many the location of this year’s summit will instead highlight the absurdity of the group’s very existence. If the G8 is supposed to stand as a model for the developing world, why does this year’s host more closely resemble a Central American dictator than a respectable leader of a great power? Why is China - which has the world’s third largest GDP - not in the group, while Canada – ranked 11th – is? Does the G8 still have any moral or economic legitimacy? Is it even relevant? These questions will likely be asked more forcefully as the summit is held in a country with such embarrassing political, social and economic problems.
‘The New Blackshirts’
On Thursday the Italian parliament authorized unarmed citizens' patrols patrol Italy's streets, aiding law enforcement and dispensing justice. In anticipation of the move, a right-wing uniformed group called the Italian National Guard was set up last month. They wear beige uniforms and black military-style hats, much like Benito Mussolini's fascists. That group will shortly begin patrolling the streets. The legislation follows significant recent gains by Italy’s neo-fascist parties, most notably when Gianni Alemanno was elected mayor of Rome last May.
The same legislation will make illegal immigration a criminal offense in Italy, introducing fines of €5,000 to €10,000 for those caught, extending detention periods for illegal migrants to six months, and introducing prison terms of up to three years for anyone housing them. It follows recent moves by the Italian government to introduce mandatory fingerprinting for Romani people (gypsies).
Aftershocks and Futureshocks
There was apparently another earthquake in L'Aquila just today - an aftershock from the previous one that devastated the area. One can question the wisdom of holding a meeting of the world's most powerful leaders in an earthquake-prone area, but its perhaps earthquakes of the political variety Berlusconi is most eager to avoid. He is no doubt very aware that his first government eventually collapsed in 1994 after a newspaper published court documents relating to allegations of corruption against him while he was hosting an international security summit in Naples. He’s also surely aware of Italy’s humiliation in 2001 after violence and heavy-handed police action marred the last G8 summit he hosted in Genoa. Berlusconi has passed a lawmaking himself immune to criminal prosecution, so he doesn’t have to worry any more about being subject to any legal embarassment. But he does have to worry that Italy’s host duties will put his philandering behaviour in the international spotlight in a way that is finally too unpalatable for the Italian public, who have so far stuck by the prime minister with approval ratings as high as 72%.
It has been speculated that large swathes of the Italian public are actually unaware of the sex scandal surrounding Berlusconi because he owns most of the media in the country and his stations and newspapers have avoided covering it. But the high-profile nature of the G8 summit could make a further whitewash impossible over the next week if the allegations somehow become connected to the summit.
One thing is for certain – Berlusconi will have to tread carefully over the coming week, and he will have to be on his best behaviour. It looks like Italy’s meter maids, for this week anyway, may get a reprieve from the unprovoked humpings.