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Berlusconi in Europe's Hot Seat

December 17, 2003

Following the collapse of the EU summit last weekend, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi has been criticized for not securing a deal on a new constitution. On Tuesday he had to defend his EU presidency to the European Parliament.

Berlusconi defending his handling of the summit in the European Parliament.Image: AP

Measured against EU presidencies past, Italy’s handling of its six-month term at the helm of the European Council was less than ideal.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi began his country’s presidency by comparing a German member of the European Parliament to a concentration camp guard. A few months later, the national interests of some EU members inflicted serious blows to the Economic Stability and Growth Pact. Over the past weekend, the same happened to the draft of the EU’s first constitution.

On Tuesday, Berlusconi, speaking before the European Parliament, defended himself against attacks that he was personally responsible for the failure of the constitutional summit, which was supposed to be the highlight of his country’s council presidency

"It is hard to escape the conclusion that this presidency and this IGC have been a personal failure for the president of the European Council," one MEP said.

Despite the barrage of criticism, Berlusconi remained sanguine as ever. ”The constitutional treaty is a goal that I’m sure we’ll manage to achieve,” said Berlusconi, who had placed the passage of the constitution as Italy’s top priority upon assuming the presidency in June.

But many European parliamentarians are not so optimistic and have declared the failure to agree upon a new constitution as a major step back for Europe. There are also nasty rumors of retribution as six countries have proposed capping the EU budget in a move that would hurt Spain and Poland. Both countries' unwilingness to compromise is seen by many as the main reason for the collapse of the summit.

A summit, Berlusconi style

Some European editorialists and politicians have heaped scorn upon Berlusconi personal style of managing the weekend summit. Although a new constitution is considered vital to the future of an expanding European Union, the famously blunt Italian leader, who owns the AC Milan soccer club, reportedly opened the summit asking if they couldn’t “talk about soccer and women” instead.

Schröder und Berlusconi stecken die Köpfe zusammen
Image: AP

He then reportedly turned to German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (photo, Berlusconi left), on his fourth marriage, and asked if he would like to begin because “he knows something about women.” Although Berlusconi often said during the summit he had solutions to the constitution deadlock hidden up his sleeve, he eventually failed to deliver.

”The EU Council President made little jokes, but in leading complicated negotiations he proved to be less capable,” wrote Spain’s El Pais newspaper, one of many to criticize Berlusconi’s handling of the summit.

In Italy's defense

But Pat Cox, the Irish president of the European Parliament, said the blame shouldn’t be placed only on Berlusconi’s shoulders.

”Italy isn’t to blame for the failure of the summit,” Cox, whose country will assume the EU presidency in January, said in a newspaper interview. “The common will to lead Europe forward was missing over the weekend. No other country in the role of the EU Presidency could balance out this lack of European esprit.”