Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Euroelection - Who Voted, and Why

If you’re a Eurobarometre-trolling dork like I am, you may have noticed this fantastic set of polling numbers published this morning looking at why people did and did not vote in last month’s EU elections. A couple of news outlets today are headlining these results with a conclusion about voter apathy, but I actually think that’s probably the least interesting observation you could make about these numbers. “European voters are apathetic” – not exactly mind-blowing news.

Overall turnout in the EU this year came to 43%, continuing the trend of a decrease each cycle since elections began – but interestingly – the drop this year (from 45.5% in 2004) was less than in the past. And it should be noted that although people here go on and on about how low the parliament election’s voter turnout is, it still hasn’t sunk as low as the typical US midterm election (usually less than 40%). And considering that the midterm votes elect the entire US House of Representatives and 1/3 of the senate, let’s face it, they’re a hell of a lot more important than the EU parliament elections. But since there’s no US presidential race accompanying them, the lack of personality politics keeps many American at home. That can certainly be said for the EU Parliament elections. There’s only so much interest you’re ever going to be able to drum up for rather boring representative democracy.

Far more interesting than the overall turnout, I thought, was the profile of who voted. The survey, done shortly after the election, showed that men were more likely to vote than women, highly educated people were more likely to vote than people with a low level of education, and a smaller proportion of unemployed and working class people voted than that of senior management.

Why did people vote? Interestingly, the numbers show that party identification is playing an increasingly less significant role in voting patterns as Europeans become more and more disillusioned with the political class. Only 43% of respondents said they felt close or very close to a single political party (just 22% in the UK).

The majority of people who voted said they did so out of a feeling of duty of obligation rather than because they an ambition for change. 47% said they voted because it is their “duty as a citizen”, while 40% said they did it because they always vote. Only 19% said they thought they could make things change, and just 13% said they voted because they feel like a European or an EU citizen. Though at the same time, only 11% said they voted in order to express their disagreement with the EU.

I also found the section on which issues were important to ther voters interesting.Economic growth and unemployment were the two most important issues to people, while the role of the EU in the international scene ranked fairly low. The more educated a person was, the more importance they placed on the EU's role in the international scene as an issue.

Predictably, the UK had one of the lowest turnouts in June - but not the lowest. That honour went to Slovakia, for the second election in a row (do Slovakians not know how to operate a voting box?). Many of the new entrants of Eastern Europe had the lowest turnout actually, with Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary all coming around the UK's 34% turnout. Also predictably, Luxembourg and Belgium had the highest turnout with around 90% (um, that's just weird...). Malta, Italy and Denmark all also had high turnouts.

***Addendum***

Thanks Enoka for pointing out that Belgium and Luxembourg have mandatory voting, that explains the high turnout. Actually that makes the fact that Belgium ranked fairly low for voter interest in the election pretty interesting. It was second to last for people reporting they had had exposure to the election campaign. Not exactly the most glowing argument for compulsory voting.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Borisov to the Rescue in Bulgaria?

It’s been interesting to watch the political developments in Bulgaria since I visited the country for my article on vote-buying in February. At the time, everyone was focused on the upcoming summer election and whether any result could rescue the country’s government from the deep morass of political corruption it had sunk into.

As predicted, the newly-created reformist party of the mayor of Sofia won the vote. However though the outcome on election day wasn’t a huge shock, the formation of the government since then has been noteworthy, and can be seen as a positive sign for those both at home and in Brussels who are desperate to see the Bulgarian government change its ways. The new prime minister, Boyko Borisov, officially took the reigns yesterday and introduced the minority government he has formed – remarkably – without entering into a coalition with the hard-right parties in the parliament.

Borisov, a bit of a political celebrity in Bulgaria, formed the new party in 2006 while he was mayor of the country’s capital, calling it “Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria” (known by the acronym GERB in Bulgarian). It’s no doubt a populist party but, as a Bulgarian friend puts it, perhaps “the good kind of populism”. Borisov came to the public with an anti-establishment message, lambasting the ruling Socialists (many of whom are aging former communists) as hopelessly corrupt and saying only he, with his new and independent political party, could tackle the corruption endemic in Bulgaria’s government.

But he’s also been critical of the nationalist parties of the right, refusing to form a clear coalition with the three right-wing parties in parliament– the Blue Coalition; Order, Lawfulness, Justice; and the ultra nationalist anti-Turkish party Ataka (whose billboards, pictured, were all over Sofia when I visited). By not making a coalition he will be forced to rule as a minority government – a fragile position that will likely fall before he can serve out his full term. In practice, he will still depend on the loose support of the three right-wing parties.

Borisov has a steep hill to climb in tackling the corruption issue. Last year the EU froze over €800 million of development aid to Bulgaria because of corruption, mostly out of concern that that money was going directly to regional and local authorities which are sometimes run as fiefdoms of organised crime. EU funds are almost always distributed locally, which presents a problem for a country like Bulgaria where the national government often has little control over regional authorities.

Overall Brussels seems happy with the election result, though Borisov’s ties to the right wing may be worrying. Still, the Bulgarian socialist party has proven itself an unreliable partner for Brussels in the past, and the EU probably feels that for the moment, any change is a good one.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Naked Fiddlers in the Swedish Mountains

The final press conference of the EU environment and energy ministers meeting in Åre, Sweden has just concluded, and I'm now on the bus that will bring me across the border to Norway. This was my first time covering an EU ministerial, and overall it was a really interesting experience. I made lots of contacts and got a few decent stories, but perhaps the most valuable aspect of the trip was observing the interaction between the Brussels press corps and EU officials.

I was rather surprised by the high level of security at the meeting. After all, these are only energy and environment ministers, and we're out in the middle of nowhere in Åre, a ski resort deep in the center of the country, seven hours by train from Stockholm. There were security guards everywhere, and even the accredited journalists were very restricted in where we could and couldn't go. Are environment ministers really prime targets for destabilising elements? I mean, I don't even know who most of them are, and I cover this area!

Monday, 20 July 2009

Iceland and the enlargement debate

Iceland’s senate narrowly voted to begin talks for the island nation to join the EU on Thursday, and already there are those in Brussels saying the accession could be fast-tracked so quickly that Iceland would be a member by the end of next year. But with the current anti-expansion mood in Brussels, Iceland’s bid could raise uncomfortable divisions and a fundamental question for the anti-expansionists: in the heated debate over whether to take on new members states, does Iceland really count?

There’s plenty of reasons to argue that Iceland is almost irrelevant to the expansion argument. As a member of the European Economic Area (along with Norway, Liechtenstein and pseudo-member Switzerland), is it already beholden to most EU legislation and has been for some time. The EEA countries and Switzerland have worked out an arrangement with the EU where they are effectively members but are not restricted in certain areas in which they don’t want to be regulated. For Switzerland and Liechtenstein that issue has been banking secrecy (among others). For Norway the issue has been their offshore oil. And for Iceland the issue has been fishing. The trade-off is they then don’t get any representation in EU lawmaking, meaning they end up being governed by laws they had no hand in shaping. All of these countries are members of the EU’s borderless Schengen Zone (but confusingly EU member states Ireland and the UK are not).

Friday, 17 July 2009

Britain’s Education Omission

This week I undertook a little experiment, asking friends across Europe if and where they learned about how the European Union functions. The response from the British was, if perhaps not surprising, still incredible. And they go a long way in explaining some of the things I’ve observed over the past week.

This week was the first assembly of the new European Parliament in Strasbourg, at which I got to witness the media circus as Nick Griffin, the newly-elected leader of the far-right, whites-only British National Party, took his seat as a UK MEP. The British media had their knickers in a twist on Tuesday as they breathlessly reported the act of a man sitting down in a chair. But in Strasbourg it was clear this event wasn’t of much interest to anyone except the throng of British reporters. After all, Mr. Griffin will be joining a dozen other far-right racist MEPs from countries across Europe, including France.

The continent wasn’t all that concerned about Mr. Griffin, they were more interested in the big decisions being taken at this week’s session – the selection of the new parliament president and committees. But I grew frustrated over the course of the day, charged with reporting on the developments in this first meeting of the new parliament, and coming up with only articles about Nick Griffin in my English-language searches on Google News. As far as the British media was concerned, this was apparently just a Nick Griffin-sitting ceremony.

The fact is once the British media stops focusing on Mr. Griffin’s activities in Brussels and Strasbourg he will probably stop showing up. After all, his main purpose in being there is to get himself more attention back in blighty. I really doubt he has much interest in the Environment Committee, to which he was appointed this week.

It was yet another illustration of how much the British media don’t understand how the EU works. Faced with the challenge of having to explain the complexities in the formation of a new parliament, they preferred to go with the easy “British fascist takes a seat” story. Their inclination for the easy story was again born out later in the week when Gordon Brown is nominating Tony Blair to be the first “president of Europe” (should such a position be created by the passing of the Lisbon Treaty) further demonstrated the astonishing ignorance of the British on all things European. Last night on Question Time, an audience member asked the guests whether Tony Blair would make a good European president. The panel, composed of senior politicians and journalists, proceeded to descend into a string of bizarre statements that betrayed the fact that they actually didn’t know what the new president position is. For that matter, they didn’t seem to know much of anything about the EU at all.

The “president of Europe” position, as the British media have dubbed it, is actually merely the presidency of the European Council – one of the three governing EU institutions which is made up of the leaders and top ministers from all the member states. That position already exists, but is currently held by entire countries on a rotating basis for 6-month terms. At the moment, the President of the Council is Sweden. That means that the council’s informal meetings are held in Sweden, and Sweden controls the agenda and the message of the council for that period. For instance next week Sweden is hosting a Council meeting on the environment that I’ll be attending in the resort town of Åre, where all the Environment Ministers (Ed Milliband from the UK) will meet.

So the Treaty of Lisbon will change this position so that instead of being held by a country for six months, it’s held by a single person for 2 1/2 years. That is the position Tony Blair is being nominated for. It is mostly symbolic, and therefore it’s important to get someone in there who has a high profile. However the president won’t specifically make policy, he or she will merely loosely control the agenda of the European Council which is NOT the executive branch of the EU. The executive branch of government in the EU is the Commission, which has a president (currently Jose Manuel Barroso) who serves a five year term. That position is the only thing that comes close to really resembling a “president of Europe”, and it’s already existed for decades.

Last night on Question Time British MP Margot James responded to the Blair question by saying that she doesn’t think there should be a president position because the British public are already funding too many government positions and so one more shouldn’t be created. I found it to be an odd comment, because this European Council presidency position already exists, and in fact by changing it to be one person rather than moving it to a new country every six months at enormous expense, I assume the EU will actually be significantly reducing the cost of the European Council presidency (though the rotating country designation will still exist in abridged form for the council of ministers, thanks Andreas!). I also find it strange for James to blame the EU for having too many government officials when the number of Euro MEPs has actually just been significantly reduced, while the British Parliament continues to heft at a grotesque 1,384 members representing just 62 million people. The European Parliament has 736 members representing 500 million people.

The fact that this panel of high-ranking MPs and media figures seemed to have little idea how the European Union works reflects just how widespread “EU ignorance” is across Britain. In any society the poor and undereducated are likely to know little about the structures which govern them, but what I’ve been shocked by is the almost complete lack of EU knowledge from educated, intelligent people in the UK. Most of my intelligent British friends have no idea what the European Commission is, even though it effectively dictates probably about 40% of the laws that govern them. These same people could tell me inside and out how the American government works, in fact they are probably better versed in American civics than most of my friends in the US. Yet if I talk about anything related to the EU I’m met with a blank stare and a shrug.

Bad Education?

So why is this? I’ve lived across Europe and I’m not labouring under any kind of delusion that people on the continent know their EU civics inside and out. But in my experience intelligent people on the continent tend to know what the Commission is and how it functions with the other two branches. So why do they know this? I’ve been asking a few of my European friends to find out.

A French friend from Paris, who doesn’t work in politics but takes a marginal interest in it, says his knowledge of the EU (which is good) is shaped by what he reads about it in the media. Ah, there’s the rub. The British media do a notoriously horrible job reporting on Europe. The EU is hardly ever mentioned in British news outlets, and when it is, the reports on it are rife with inaccuracy. By contrast the French media does cover important EU stories, when a piece of legislation will directly effect French people in an important way. But still, EU stories can be fairly boring, and I would be imagine it would be pretty easy for even intelligent French people to tune them out or give them only cursory attention. So that can’t be the entire explanation of the difference.

A German friend from Hamburg told me that though he doesn’t usually read articles about the EU in newspapers (he’ll usually skip them because he thinks they’re boring), he does know the fundamentals of how the EU works because he learned it in school. I tested his knowledge a bit and found that yes, he does have a good mastery of the basics of how the EU works, so I asked him when he learned this. He said he learned it in secondary school, in a required class that was coupled with a course on German civics. Social Studies 101 basically.

Ah ha, so there’s the rub. Education. I suppose it’s understandable that people my age wouldn’t have had extensive education on the EU, as when they were in any secondary school civics course it had only recently become a real significant entity. So I quizzed a few of my British friends on what kind of education they received in school about the structure of the EU.

Again, I was met with blank stares.

I asked several people, and all of them told me they had never received any education in how the EU works, not even as part of a general civics course on British government.

I figured I was getting closer to my answer. British people were never educated in how the EU works and they don’t hear anything about it from their media, so how on earth are they supposed to know what it even is? Yet this is now a body which affects vast areas of their daily life. Education is always a catch-up game I suppose. Perhaps this just takes time to change. Surely young students now must be being taught about how the EU works, given its rapid increase in importance over the past 10 years.

So I asked a friend of mine who teaches in a secondary school here if EU civics is now being taught in school. I was shocked by his response. “Nope, nothing,” he answered matter-of-factly. “Not even in a civics class? Or a government course?” I asked. “I’ve definitely never heard of it being taught,” he answered.

This situation seems rather incredible to me. This may be a hyperbolic example, but it would be like a school system in Texas teaching students only how the Texas state government operates, and completely ignoring the federal government in Washington as if it didn’t exist. It’s a huge disservice to the students who will have to live in a framework where those laws made at the federal level will have a huge impact on their lives, and they will have no idea how they’re made.

I suppose it’s reflective of the general attitude of educated Britain toward the EU. Deep down they may know its necessary, they may not want to leave it, but they would prefer to just ignore it because to acknowledge that they need it is just too damaging to their national pride. Perhaps it would just be too humiliating for a British history teacher to transition from telling his students about the glories of standing astride the world as the British Empire to telling them the modern reality of being one part of a European coalition. Maybe it’s just a symptom of post-imperial trauma. After all, they say the second stage of any trauma is denial.

But in the mean time, it seems to me the British education system is doing young people a real disservice if they really are ignoring the EU.

Friday, 10 July 2009

"Chaotic" G8 Helped Few but the Tabloids

As the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy wraps up, it would seem that initial predictions for the meeting’s lack of accomplishment have been born out. In the area of climate change, though a 2 degree temperature rise cap was theoretically agreed, the leaders failed to pass a climate bill which would mandate halving global emissions by 2050. The G8 also failed to agree a concerted strategy to boost the global economy, and they could not agree to any new sanctions on Iran or North Korea.

The timing of the summit, sandwiched as it is between two important G20 meetings, is of course partly to blame for the inaction. But many on the ground are blaming the failures on the country leading this year’s meeting, Italy. In the run-up to the summit there was a great deal of press about how the US had been forced to take the reigns of at the last minute after Italy failed to show any real leadership. But it was a report in Monday’s Guardian which stirred up the most controversy, alleging that senior officials from the other G8 nations were saying that Italy’s organisation of the event was so bad, the group should consider expelling it as a member.

The newspaper quotes senior officials as saying that in the last few weeks leading up to the summit, Washington was forced to organise “sherpa calls” at the last minute in order to give the summit some kind of purpose, as the Italians had seemingly failed to propose any substantive initiatives. For a country other than the host to organize these calls is “unprecedented”, one official told the paper. It was the US that organized the food security initiative, perhaps the only substantial thing to come out of the meeting. The paper also said that moving the summit from Sardinia to the recently earthquake-ravaged area of L'Aquila had created a logistical nightmare, with both officials and press unable to get around and telecommunications limited. And that’s not to mention the danger posed to the visiting heads of state as the area is still experiencing aftershocks.

The Guardian’s article was met with shock and consternation from Italian officials this week, some of it rather amusing. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini reacted to the assertion that some are calling for Italy to be kicked out of the G8 by saying it is The Guardian which should be “expelled from the list of great newspapers!” Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi himself even gave his take on the article, saying it was a "load of rubbish" from a "small newspaper". Well which is it, a small newspaper or a great newspaper?

But disorganisation – an admitted national stereotype - isn’t the only accusation being levelled at Italy. Yesterday news emerged of a developing spy row in L’Aquila as people claimed the Italians were trying to use headphones to listen in on other negotiations. Berlusconi’s aids were also accused of having looked into using an audio device to communicate messages to him during secret meetings.

If the chaos and corruption being reported on the ground is true, it will not help Italy’s case for staying in the G8 or its successor body as a growing chorus of people call for the G8’s dissolution. There has been talk of replacing Italy with Spain, which now has a higher per capita national income than Italy and gives a greater percentage of GDP in aid. But US officials oppose this, believing that the group is already too Euro-centric. It may be that Britain, France and Germany are a bit nervous about the prospect of seeing Italy get the boot, because they know that they could eventually be next. The world has changed a great deal since the G8 was formed, as Spain’s emergence from the dark ages of the Franco era attests.

Many in the US think that a new group should be formed where all European nations are represented by a single EU seat (especially considering the EU already has an unofficial seat in the G8, effectively giving the European nations double representation). Individual EU countries would surely resist this, but the reality is they may have to accept it eventually. A more logical “G6” grouping in the future might be the US, the EU, China, Russia, India and Brazil.

Sex on Their Minds

Of course everyone gathered in Italy for the G8 summit can’t escape the Berlusconi sex scandal lurking in the background that has coloured the whole event. Wednesday saw the bizarre spectacle of five first ladies visiting the pope, all wearing veils - including Britain’s Sarah Brown - except for the first lady of Brazil - the largest Catholic country on earth. (Side note – can someone explain to me why non-Catholic women were compelled to wear a veil while meeting the pope?).

They were led by a former topless model (also veiled) who was standing in for the first lady of Italy, who is currently in divorce proceedings with her philandering husband Silvio Berlusconi. The stand-in for Italian first lady was Mara Carfagna, a former topless model appointed by Berlusconi to be – get this- his equal opportunities minister. The first wives had been asked to boycott the summit by a group of Italian university professors in response to, “the way women are treated in public and private by the Italian prime minister.” None of the wives agreed to the boycott but interestingly the most high-profile ones – Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni – were conveniently not available for the pope introduction led by the topless model.

None of the leaders or their wives have offered direct comment on the scandal, but Obama seemed to offer veiled disapproval of Berlusconi earlier this week following his meeting with Italy’s president. He lavished praise on President Napolitano (a mere figurehead in the Italian system of government) while offering none for Berlusconi.

President Napolitano had called on politicians and the media to take a break on discussing the sex allegations against Berlusconi during the summit so as to spare Italy any further embarrassment, but now that the meeting is coming to an end it looks like new allegations will keep emerging. New photos will reportedly be revealed in the next few days showing two topless women kissing in front of the prime minister for his amusement.

As G8 summits go, this year’s was, if not the most productive, at least the most sexy.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Who will the Hackgate Net Ensnare?

Last night the Guardian newspaper came out with some explosive allegations here in the UK, and the evening news broadcasts were scrambling to unravel a scandal that could ensnare David Cameron, Rupert Murdoch and Scotland Yard all at once.

The Guardian article alleges that British newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. have paid £1 million in settlements to people who have had their phones hacked by private investigators hired by the company. The story alleges that such criminal activity was ‘systemic’ at News Corp’s British papers, particularly at News of the World and, to a lesser extent, the Sun. And all of this was going on during the editorship of Andy Coulson, who was recently hired as the Communications Director for Conservative leader David Cameron.

The list of people who had their phones hacked is wide and varied, representing the papers’ multi-faceted role of covering celebrity gossip, sports and politics using the same methods. Celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Nigella Lawson were hacked along with former deputy prime minister John Prescott and former culture secretary Tessa Jowell.

There are a number of important questions raised here that could have big ramifications. One, did News Corp have a widespread, top-down policy of hacking phones, and then pay to cover up evidence of this policy once it was discovered by police? Two, was Scotland Yard coerced into dropping the investigation after discovering the evidence of widespread bugging? And three, what does it say about the Conservatives’ media strategy that they have hired a communications director that engages in these kind of practices?

Back in 2007, a News of the World reporter named Clive Goodman was convicted and jailed for hacking into the mobile phones of three members of staff for the royal family. News Corp assured parliament at the time that this was a one-off incident, calling Goodman a ‘rogue reporter’. But a source at Scotland Yard told the Guardian that during their inquiry investigators found evidence that News Corp staff had hacked into “thousands” of mobile phones using private investigators.

The investigation they’re referring to came after the Goodman case was exposed. It’s a bit unclear what happened, but it would appear that the Goodman case prompted the police to investigate other reporters at News of the World, evidence of widespread phone bugging was discovered, and some of the victims were informed by the police and others were not. It appears that none of the political victims were informed, but several of the sports and entertainment figures were. One of the figures who was told, Professional Footballers' Association chief executive Gordon Taylor, sued News of the World. According to the Guardian, the company paid Taylor a £700,000 settlement with the stipulation that none of the information about the phone tampering could go public.

The idea that a newspaper would pay a settlement to keep something hidden from the media is pretty shocking. But what’s perhaps more shocking is that, faced with this allegedly overwhelming evidence that criminal activity was taking place, the police chose not to investigate it further or inform the victims. Considering that many of the victims were cabinet-level political figures, this seems downright bizarre.

It appears quite possible from the Guardian’s report that Andy Coulson was, if not directly involved with the strategy of hacking people’s phones, complicit in it by looking the other way. This may create a big headache for David Cameron, who’s decision to hire Coulson as the Tories’ mouthpiece was quite controversial, given his tabloid background. Cameron has been surprisingly cavalier about it so far. When the news broke last night his spokesperson said Cameron was “very relaxed” about the story. Then this morning, speaking outside his home in west London he said: "It's wrong for newspapers to breach people's privacy with no justification. That is why Andy Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World two-and-a-half years ago… Of course I knew about that resignation before offering him the job. But I believe in giving people a second chance.”

Cameron seems to be suggesting that that because Coulson resigned following the Goodman conviction (which he claimed was a one-off he had no knowledge of), new information that shows he actually presided over a more wide-spread policy of hacking is irrelevant. This is a strange argument to make, and I have a feeling his “second chance” line is going to come back to haunt him as questions about his judgement arise. The BBC is already reporting that the Tories are getting increasingly nervous about this as the day goes on.

Given that Cameron is frequently derided as a “spin-meister” who is all showmanship and little substance, the news that he’s hired a tabloid news editor who is accused of presiding over a newsroom that systematically hacked people’s phones to drudge up dirt on them is probably the last thing he needs for his image. Much like Tony Blair’s PR guru Alistair Campbell before him, Coulson has now “become the story” in a way that is never good for any PR man.

The Guardian is providing a live feed of the developments in this matter as the day goes on. It will certainly be interesting to watch.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Awkward Handshakes in Italy

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.