G8 gives Berlusconi welcome respite from scandals
L’Aquila — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi last week basked in the afterglow of a gaffe-free G8 summit that gave him a welcome respite from two months of scandals over his private life.
"Il Cavaliere has regained the upper hand," said political scientist Marco Tarchi, using a common nickname for the flamboyant prime minister, after the three days of talks wrapped up.
"He has scored some points even if the game is not over. While the world thought Italy was run by a buffoon, he projected a different image at L’Aquila," said Tarchi of the University of Florence.
Berlusconi, to general surprise, announced in late April that the summit of wealthy nations would take place in L’Aquila, central Italy, instead of in Sardinia, as a gesture of solidarity with the survivors of the April 6 earthquake there.
"It was a stroke of genius," said Marc Lazar, a French political scientist specialising in Italian affairs. "It was a very risky gamble that paid off. Even the opposition media recognise that."
The Italian premier prepared for the summit amid a storm over his love life, after photographs of topless young women attending parties in his Sardinia villa surfaced along with allegations of relations with escort girls and teenagers.
Berlusconi has dismissed the allegations as "all lies" and politically motivated.
"You expected to see a weakened leader, and instead you saw a statesman who presided well over the summit," Lazar told AFP.
The foreign press, notably in Britain, had derided Berlusconi in the run-up to the summit, quoting unnamed Western leaders as saying the organisation had been chaotic.
But in the event US President Barack Obama praised Italy’s "strong leadership" while German Chancellor Angela Merkel considered that the G8 had enjoyed "a nice, well organised summit."
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also came to the billionaire prime minister’s defence, saying his Italian counterpart, "near as I can tell, is in great form.
"You wouldn’t know" Berlusconi is 72, Harper said. "He is remarkably energetic and a wonderful host."
Harper quipped: "The only problem I have with Prime Minister Berlusconi is the gifts he gave me are enough to get me into a serious problem with the ethics commissioner, so I’m going to make sure I report them all."
Even the left-wing La Repubblica daily, which has mounted a relentless campaign for Berlusconi to explain his relationship with an 18-year-old aspiring model and the other scandals, was eating humble pie on Friday.
"Surrounding himself with world leaders, imitating their style and placing himself on their level in the end was a useful exercise for him and the country," the paper said in an editorial. "Berlusconi was an excellent host."
Flush with success, the prime minister goaded a journalist from La Repubblica at a news conference: "You didn’t get the outcome you were looking for."
Mother Nature herself cooperated, since no aftershocks from the deadly April 6 quake disturbed the talks.
The region has suffered thousands of aftershocks, including one as strong as 5.1 on the Richter scale, since the quake claimed 299 lives.
Authorities had said they would evacuate the entire operation — more than 30 official delegations, some 3,000 journalists — and cancel the event if there was an aftershock of magnitude four or more.
That would have deprived Berlusconi of a spotlight he had been yearning to occupy for months.
The normally ebullient Berlusconi adopted an especially sober style at the summit, putting his well-known tendency to make dubious wisecracks on hold.
Among the most notorious in recent times was his reference to Obama "young, good-looking and suntanned" in the run-up to last year’s US presidential election.
"He’s realised that his image has been severely tarnished," Tarchi said. "He set aside the everyman image that he likes so much, his populism, to take on the statesman role."
Berlusconi has even decided to forgo his celebrated partying as the summer holidays approach.
Instead of heading to his villa at Sardinia’s playground of the rich, Berlusconi said he planned to vacation in the L’Aquila area.
"I’m looking for a house for the month of August so I can check on the progress" in rebuilding the earthquake zone, he told a Friday news conference.