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Blaming Berlin

Martin Koch / slkFebruary 22, 2013

As Italy gears up for general elections on Sunday, Silvio Berlusconi is trying to win over voters with anti-German campaign rhetoric. Berlin has responded with cool restraint.

Chancellor Merkel receives Silvio Berlusconi in Berlin 12.01.2012 XXX Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel (CDU) empfängt am Mittwoch (12.01.2011) vor dem Bundeskanzleramt in Berlin den italienischen Ministerpräsidenten Silvio Berlusconi. Die Politiker treffen sich zu Deutsch-Italienischen Regierungskonsultationen in der deutschen Hauptstadt. Foto: Wolfgang Kumm dpa/lbn +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++ pixel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The next time German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets the Italian prime minister, she may shake hands with a familiar, but unloved politician: Silvio Berlusconi. Political observers in Italy are predicting that Berlusconi has a serious chance of winning a fifth term in office. After serving four terms starting in 1994, the media tycoon was forced to step down in November 2011 amid Italy's worsening financial crisis.

Ironically, Merkel may contribute to a possible Berlusconi victory. Throughout his campaign, the 76-year-old has made Germany the scapegoat for Italy's bad economy, citing the important role Berlin played in supporting EU-imposed austerity measures.

Polite distaste

The relationship between Berlusconi and Merkel was always tense. Although the two technically belong to the same conservative political tradition, their smiling congeniality always seemed forced whenever they met. It was as if two distant relatives, who really just wanted to steer clear of each other, managed to put on studied smiles for a family photo.

The political scientist Angelo Bolaffi, the former head of the Italian Cultural Institute in Berlin, described their relationship in even more dramatic terms.

Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel (CDU) empfängt am Mittwoch (12.01.2011) vor dem Bundeskanzleramt in Berlin den italienischen Ministerpräsidenten Silvio Berlusconi. Die Politiker treffen sich zu Deutsch-Italienischen Regierungskonsultationen in der deutschen Hauptstadt. Foto: Wolfgang Kumm dpa/lbn +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++ pixel
Berlusconi and Merkel have always had an awkward public relationshipImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The two have absolutely no relationship - they cannot speak with one another, not even on a personal level," Bolaffi told DW. "That plays an important role in politics, and they don't trust each other."

During his campaign, Berlusconi has tried to single out Merkel as responsible for the tough austerity measures that Italy has undergone. Tax hikes, budget cuts, economic crisis - it's all Merkel's fault. He's able to voice these populist attacks around the clock on his television network Mediaset, which consists of several different channels. Berlusconi has a tremendous amount of manipulative power.

"There aren't many people who have enough time and enough knowledge to challenge everything he says," Bolaffi said.

Media mogul ex-premier

According to Bolaffi, the 2013 election campaign brings Berlusconi's political career full circle. Berlusconi employed his media power to first win political office in 1994. Although the political scientist does not anticipate Berlusconi returning to power this time around, he does expect the former prime minister - with his 20 percent support - to play an important role in coalition talks.

Bolaffi finds it unfortunate that German-Italian relations have suffered in the recent past. The two countries were allies during the start of the movement for European integration. But ever since Berlusconi took power nearly two decades ago, the relationship has deteriorated. He broke with the Italian tradition of making Germany one of his first stops abroad.

These days, the relationship between Berlin and Rome is "precarious," according to Bolaffi. He said that Merkel is constantly being made responsible for the bad economy in Italy. But Bolaffi rarely hears people saying that the austerity measures are the consequence of Italy's own difficult circumstances, and that they are a necessary step toward ending the crisis. It's no wonder then that Italians are not on the best terms with Germany right now.

Cool restraint in Berlin

Merkel's government has responded with composure to reports that anti-German sentiment is being spread in Italy. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung that Berlin would not comment on the Italian election or the campaign rhetoric there. But he did clearly express Germany's interests.

"We are of course not a party in Italy's election," Westerwelle said. "But we are banking on the continuation of a pro-European course and the necessary reform program. That's without a doubt the position of the entire federal government."

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures during a political rally in Turin February 17, 2013. REUTERS/Giorgio Perottino (ITALY - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Berlusconi wields tremendous power and influence through his television assetsImage: Reuters

The chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, Ruprecht Polenz, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that Italy needs forward-looking leaders. 

"Italy needs political leadership that is connected with the future," Polenz said. "Berlusconi is certainly not that."

According to the political scientist Gerd Langguth, Merkel's coalition should not act so relaxed about the political situation in Rome. The vote in Italy could cast a shadow on Germany's general election this coming September.

"If Berlusconi is elected, that would be a bad omen for Merkel, because it would suggest that the chancellor was not able to implement her vision," Langguth told DW.

Democracy, Italian style

Bolaffi is convinced that, in the end, it will very much be an Italian election. That means there will likely be a neck-and-neck race between two or three parties and complicated coalition talks afterward.

The protest party of the comedian Beppe Grillo could play a role. His "Five Star Movement" is currently polling at 20 percent. The polls could also end in a grand coalition between Berlusconi's PDL and the leftist party of Pier Luigi Bersani, who was the favorite at the start of the campaign.

"Everything is open, just as it always is in Italy," Bolaffi said.