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19th Sep 2020

Berlusconi in Brussels on pre-election charm offensive

  • Berlusconi said he was willing to "respect the three percent" rule (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Seven years after he resigned as a prime minister after the Italian debt crisis threatened the eurozone, Silvio Berlusconi went to Brussels this week presenting himself as an element of political stability for Italy and Europe - ahead of Italy's general election on March 4.

On Monday and Tuesday (22-23 January), the 81-year old ex-prime minister met leading figures from his centre-right European People's Party, including the the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and the president of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani, plus EU negotiator on Brexit Michel Barnier.

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With his Brussels trip, the Italian former PM sought - and obtained - an endorsement for his leading role within his centre-right coalition, that, along with his Forza Italia party, includes the hard-right Northern League party led by Matteo Salvini, and the Brothers of Italy party.

Berlusconi's charm offensive came after the Northern League's Salvini, who has repeatedly called for a referendum on Italy's euro membership, recently questioned other eurozone measures.

EU officials are concerned in particular by Salvini's aversion to the EU rule that imposes on Italy to keep the public deficit below three percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

During his meeting with EPP's leaders Berlusconi said he is willing to "respect the three percent" rule.

He also reassured his EU interlocutors about Italy's relationship with the union, calling it "essential."

Berlusconi tried to make light of declarations made by Salvini, who on Tuesday said the three percent criteria would be "out of discussion" if it harms families and companies.

Salvini also said the same day that the euro was a "failed experiment", and the League does not rule out "any possibility" in advance in terms of a possible referendum on the single currency.

The party leader also said he will offer to the Italian electorate at the March poll two strongly anti-euro economists as candidates, Alberto Bagnai and Claudio Borghi.

Five Star threat

Berlusconi, however, also stressed the importance of the Italian centre-right as the only way to block the rise of the populist anti-EU Five Star Movement.

On Tuesday, the ex-pm called Five Star a dangerous "sect", that is ready to change its positions "depending on convenience."

Berlusconi said that populist parties such as Five Star are now "the main target of the EPP coalition."

As with the Northern League, Five Star are a source of concern and uncertainty in the EU establishment due to their financial commitments and calls to leave the euro.

Commenting on Five Star's candidate for prime minister, Luigi di Maio's, declarations about his willingness to break the three percent limit, economy commissioner Pierre Moscovici said on 16 January that "it's an absolute contradiction."

After Berlusconi's trip, European Parliament vice-president from the Five Star Movement Massimo Castaldo said that was a "paradox" that a person charged with fiscal fraud was touring the EU institutions.

Excellent talks

Yet Berlusconi received a enthusiastic welcome and a full endorsement by EPP colleagues, who several times in the past have strongly criticised him.

Jean Claude Juncker said their meeting was "excellent"

Berlusconi said on Monday that German chancellor Angela Merkel supported his coalition "with determination."

Forza Italia's leader expressed his best wishes for the German 'Grand Coalition' talks that, he said "will entail for Ms Merkel the opportunity to be still influential in Europe."

In December, Merkel reportedly sent Berlusconi her best wishes for the elections.

Endorsement came also from Manfred Weber, a German MEP who heads the European parliament's centre-right group, who said that is "great" being on the same page with Berlusconi, and called for "a strong Italy and a strong Europe."

EPP secretary general Antonio Lopez gave his "very clear support" to Forza Italia.

As for the issues discussed, commission officials said that "there was a good collaboration on all the European issues."

On Tuesday, Berlusconi explained that talks were about "EU issues concerning all the western world," including defence and migration.

Political rehabilitation

With his Brussels tour Berlusconi, who is ineligible to be prime minister himself for fraud against the state, obtained also a personal rehabilitation after his 2011 fall from grace and consequent abandonment by his fellow EPP family.

"Berlusconi doesn't need rehabilitation," said Weber. "He is a great statesman and a great European."

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