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Europe

The EU Presidency According to Silvio

His party changed the law to to make him immune from prosecution and his criminal case was dropped. Now Silvio Berlusconi is at the helm of Europe and some fear scandal will overshadow his term as EU president.

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His court battles behind him, Silvio Berlusconi will now lead Italy and Europe for the next six months.

Historically, the handover between European Union presidencies has been a quiet affair.

Every six months a new country is placed at the helm of the rotating presidency, a largely symbolic office responsible for the organization and agenda-setting at major European summits. Not so as Italy took over on Tuesday.

Since being elected Italian Prime Minister in 2001, many in Europe have been uncomfortable with billionaire media baron-cum politician Silvio Berlusconi. Critics at home say the several conflicts of interests that have shadowed his political tenure make him unfit for office. Now the idea of having a man accused of dubious financial dealings and of bending the law to avoid prosecution on bribery charges is too much for some in Europe.

"Berlusconi damages Italy and now all of Europe, he is corruption personified," wrote Michael Müller, a senior leader of Germany's ruling Social Democratic Party in an open letter to newspapers earlier this week. "Italy's head of government is dismantling the independence of the courts, he's custom tailoring laws to fit his needs," he wrote, adding that Berlusconi was also harming the media by mixing his own interests with those of the state. (As the owner of three Mediaset stations and head of the government that manages the state-funded public broadcaster RAI, Berlusconi has either direct control or considerable influence on 90 percent of Italy's TV broadcasters.)

"The Godfather," coming soon

As he takes up the helm of the EU, Europe’s media are also taking Berlusconi to task. He graces the cover of Germany's newsmagazine Der Spiegel this week, his headshot appearing over the headline: "The Godfather: Now appearing all across Europe." The French newspaper Le Monde, meanwhile, predicts a difficult six months for Berlusconi. And only two years after it wrote that Berlusconi was "unfit to rule Italy," the Economist wrote recently that he was "unfit to rule Europe."

The latest editorial tirades against Berlusconi have been launched in the wake of a ruling on Monday in a Milan court that formally suspended a bribery trial against the Italian prime minister after parliament passed a law last month granting immunity to sitting prime ministers. The vote permitted Berlusconi to neatly tie up any legal loose ends before assuming his role as EU president; otherwise, his position would likely have embarrassed both Italy and Europe.

Berlusconi Prozess in Italien

Berlusconi likes to blame the bad press on the left-wing media in Italy. "The leftist Italian press has been waging a war against me since I entered into politics," he recently said.

Trepidation in Brussels

But criticism of Berlusconi isn't isolated to the media -- there's also considerable concern he will bring too much political baggage with him as the symbolic head of the EU.

Graham Watson, head of the European Parliament's Liberal Democrats, said many Europeans are shaken by the fact that the Italian prime minister was able to change the law in order to avoid a conviction. If Italy were currently a candidate country for the European Union, it probably wouldn't be granted admission, Watson has argued.

Others have been critical of the policy course taken by Berlusconi on pan-European issues, some even accusing it of having made a 180-degree U-turn. Whether it be Italy's resistance to a Europe-wide arrest warrant or its demand that farmers be cut a special, unrelated deal before it signed on to an EU agreement that would eliminate tax evasion by people who hold money in secret foreign bank accounts, EU officials in Brussels complain that Italy has recently shown little willingness to compromise on important issues. Rome has also been critical of the restrictive deficit-spending caps stipulated by the Growth and Stability Pact ensuring the stability of the euro.

The go-it-alone trend against Brussels is aided little by flippant remarks made by Berlusconi's senior cabinet officials. In response to the growing problem of illegal immigration from Northern Africa, Umberto Bossi, Berlusconi's flamboyant minister for reforms, said the country should call in the navy and fire on the boats to keep them from landing on Italian shores.

A hazy plan for the presidency

Little concrete will be known about Italy's plans for its EU presidency before Wednesday, when Berlusconi is expected to present his agenda before the European Parliament in Strasbourg. But Rome has said that opening the intergovernmental conference responsible for ushering through and approving a European constitution would be its highest priority. Approval of the successor to 1957's Treaty of Rome, which created the European Union, would be a nice feather in the cap for the Italian presidency.

Illegal immigration and people trafficking is also expected to be a dominant issue. Italy has called for the creation of a joint European border guard to protect the Mediterranean shores from illegal immigrants as well as controversial protection centers for immigrants outside the EU.

It is also expected to give higher priority to promoting transatlantic relations and ties between Europe, the Mediterranean and the Western Balkans. "Europe must be complementary to the United States," Berlusconi recently told Europe 1 radio. "I think the West must be united. There can't be competition between us and America."

As one of a group of EU leaders who supported U.S. President George W. Bush during the Iraq war, Berlusconi is likely to find a more sympathetic ear in Washington.

As for his critics, many are just buckling up their seat belts and hoping little will transpire during the next six months.

"Now we just have to be observant and hope that this time passes by quickly, without any further damage," Germany’s Müller said on Monday.

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