10 Febbraio 2002
The Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is hoping for a new alliance with Britain to challenge the Franco-German axis driving the European Union towards ever-closer integration.
In an interview in Palazzo Chigi, his magnificent official residence, as he prepared for a summit with Tony Blair in Rome this week, the billionaire tycoon turned politician spoke of his dissatisfaction at the pace of European reform set by Paris and Berlin, contrasting the sluggishness of the French and German economies with brighter prospects in Britain, Spain and Italy.
However, Berlusconi, whose centre-right coalition came to power last May, also expressed the hope that Britain would join the single currency; and he criticised Blair's handling of relations with Washington after the September 11 terrorist attacks on America.
Berlusconi hopes the foundation of a proposed entente between Rome, Madrid and London will be laid this Friday with an Anglo-Italian pact to free overregulated labour markets.
“In France and Germany, the social-democratic formula based on the strong presence of the state in the economy means high costs for the state and high fiscal pressure,” he said, leaning back in a golden chair in his sumptuous office, decorated with frescoes and filled with antique furniture.
“Look at Spain — there the economy is growing at 4% a year. In Germany it's less than half that.”
Berlusconi's relationship with Blair is not free of tensions, however. The Italian leader said he was dismayed after September 11 to see the prime minister, followed by President Jacques Chirac of France and Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, fly separately to America to discuss military co-operation with President George W Bush.
“Even I was forced to go in the end too, because otherwise people would have said, ‘Why Blair, Chirac and Schröder and not Berlusconi?' ” European leaders should have met first, and then sent Javier Solana, the official responsible for EU foreign and security policy, to speak for all of them, said Berlusconi.
“I took Tony aside and told him when we had dinner in November at Downing Street. I took the others aside afterwards too,” he said. “It would have been an opportunity to demonstrate Europe was capable of taking common, collective action.”
Unlike Blair, Berlusconi does not believe Nato should have a say in the running of the EU's 60,000-strong rapid reaction force. The force should work “in co-operation” with the alliance, but be completely autonomous, he said.
Berlusconi nevertheless enthused about the close personal relationship he enjoyed with “my friend Tony”. “I like his way of thinking and of operating, and we enjoy being together,” he said. “We have a similar sense of humour, we like to tell jokes to make a point.”
He also revealed that the two communicate in French. “When I told Tony that I had learnt French studying law at the Sorbonne, he told me he learnt his French from behind the counter of a bar where he was working. He told me that my French had more noble origins than his.”
In their agreement, Blair and Berlusconi will urge an overhaul of collective bargaining and other rules governing the functioning of labour markets in order to create more jobs. The document will call for a deadline to be set for a liberalisation of the energy market — a step that France has resisted, despite pressure from the EU.
Berlusconi also denied claims that his government was eurosceptic — an impression strengthened by the recent resignation of Renato Ruggiero, the foreign minister, in a dispute over the degree of the government's commitment to the single currency. “The euro? Hooray for the euro, and I hope Britain joins,” said Berlusconi.
“There is an Italian left that sadly misrepresents to my European colleagues what is really happening in Italy, and the nature of the Italian government. I have no hesitation in denouncing this as treason, which harms not only the image of my government but also the image of my country.”
Berlusconi, facing a series of trials on charges including corruption, fraud and bribing judges — all of which he denies — also dismissed claims that he was trying to weaken legislation that would regulate a conflict of interest between his political role and extensive business holdings, including several television stations.
“I think that within a month we will have the law, to which I will conform absolutely,” he said.