Saturday

26th Sep 2020

Berlusconi threatens to wreck EU summit unless commission shuts up

In a fit of pique, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has threatened to block the upcoming European Council - the top summit of all of Europe's premiers and presidents - if commission spokespeople do not learn to keep quiet.

Commission spokespeople and even commissioners themselves must not speak publicly on "any topic," Mr Berlusconi demanded when speaking reporters in Gdansk during a ceremony marking the start of the Second World War.

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  • PM Berlusconi was in Gdansk with other European leaders marking the start of the Second World War (Photo: Kremlin News Service)

The "voice of Europe," he said, must be expressed exclusively by the president of the commission or his immediate spokesperson. If this did not happen, he added, he would "block the functioning of the European Council."

Mr Berlusconi, furious at the commission's request for clarification by Italy concerning the deportation of immigrants, took out his anger at the commission spokesperson who had been responding to a question by a journalist about the refugees.

On Monday (31 August), Dennis Abbott, of Britain, had told Italian reporters that the commission had requested that Italy explain its decision to send back a boatload of around 70 refugees to Libya.

The commission "is aware" of the latest news regarding the forced return of the refugees, the spokesperson told the reporter, and that the commission "will send a request for information to the two countries involved, Italy and Malta, to assess the situation."

"The commission emphasises that any human being has the right to submit an application that recognises the status of refugee or international protection," he added.

It is thought that this last comment is what infuriated the Italian leader. His comments were immediately splashed on the front pages of the websites of leading Italian newspapers La Stampa, La Repubblica and Corriere della Serra.

'We'll suspend our vote'

The spokesperson recalled that Jacque Barrot, the justice commissioner, had said as much in a letter from 15 July to the chairman of the European Parliament's civil liberties committee, Lopez Aguilar.

"The principle of non-refoulement [the legal term for the protection of refugees from being turned back], as interpreted by the European Court of rights, essentially means that states must refrain from rejecting a person (directly or indirectly) where this could run a real risk of being subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment.

"States cannot reject the refugees at the frontiers of territories where their life or their freedoms could be threatened because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or their political opinion. Obligations must be fulfilled during the implementation of border controls in accordance with the Schengen Border Code, including for surveillance activities at sea."

In response to journalists' questions about the matter in Gdansk, Mr Berlusconi said: "I will bring this issue to the next summit of heads of state and government."

The prime minister then said his position is "decisive and clear: We will suspend our our vote, blocking the functioning of the European Council unless it is determined that no commissioner and no spokesperson for the commission can intervene publicly any more on any issue."

He said: "Speaking should rest only with the president of the commission and his spokesman. If commissioners and spokesmen continue as they have done all these years, they should be fired in a definitive manner."

Mr Berlusconi believes that comments made by spokespeople of the commission are regularly used by the Italian opposition against him.

The statements by spokespeople create a situation "that is unacceptable because they just give ammunition to the opposition."

'No need for polemics'

Reacting to Mr Berlusconi's outburst, Mr Abbott told EUobserver: "The commission is working with Italy and other member states on this issue and all other policy issues in an objective and loyal way, as is always the case."

"If the commission seeks information or clarifications from member states, this is not a criticism. It is, in the first place, because we want to help. We can only be objective if we are in possession of all the relevant facts."

The commission's press service is eager to defuse the row while at the same time keen to defend Mr Abbott.

"There is no reason for polemics," Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, a senior commission spokeswoman, told this website. "There is an important challenge to be resolved. We must resolve it together."

At the same time, Ms Hansen underscored that the commission has a responsibility to respond to journalists' questions.

"The commission is accountable under the treaty. It has a duty under the treaty to provide information and communication. It does so in the way it is constituted under the treaty,"

She added that Mr Abbott should not be the focus of anyone's ire.

"We are a collegiate body, so he speaks on the basis of agreed information. He enjoys the full backing of all his colleagues. All for one and one for all."

It is understood that Mr Berlusconi has had as many as three similar flare-ups with commission spokespeople in the past, but never before so demonstrably or in public.

MEPs outraged

Socialists in the European Parliament were outraged at Mr Berlusconi's ultimatum.

"We call on the EU presidency and European Commission President Barroso to react immediately and personally against this outrageous attack on the European Institutions," said Martin Schulz, head of the centre-left in the parliament in a statement.

"Berlusconi should not even dream of telling the EU not to speak out. Europe has had more than enough painful experience of being silenced."

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