Silvio Berlusconi's Failure of Leadership is a Disaster for Europe

posted by Geoff Andrews at Wednesday, October 26, 2011

26 October

As EU leaders wait anxiously for confirmation that the Italian government has come up with a coherent fiscal reform package to ease the Eurozone crisis, Silvio Berlusconi, facing his biggest battle, has agreed to step down early. He was given an ultimatum to bring concrete evidence of these reforms to today’s meeting and this seems to be the cost of his political failures. Without the assurances,, the ability of the EU to help Italy out of its rising public debt will be severely jeopardised.

The EU’s demands follow Angela Merkel’s and Nicolas Sarkozy’s clear rebuke of the Italian Premier and his government’s failure to present a coherent reform agenda at the weekend – a drama which caused much anger in Rome. While this may have precipitated the current uncertainty – Berlusconi’s anger was matched by some opposition leaders, in a pathetic display of provincialism given their own ineptitude - the political crisis in Italy did not start here.

True, Berlusconi felt peeved and others talked of ‘humiliation’ as the ‘Merkozy’ exchanged knowing and ironic glances when asked about the progress of his government’s reform proposals. However, the crisis is long running, and derived from the stalemate created by Berlusconi’s determination to preserve his own massive interests in the wake of on-going court cases and the absence of a viable political alternative.

It is more than that however. Berlusconi’s manner of ruling defies the conventions of liberal democratic values. As Maurizio Viroli has argued in his new book The Liberty of Servants, Berlusconi has transformed the traditional relationship between leaders and led. His allies could have brought him down many times – and as recently as the latest confidence vote a fortnight ago. Yet, they depend on him for favours and status, while Berlusconi has shown an inclination to placate his critics with last minute rewards and promotions. This is how is government is organised. ‘Without me, none of you have a future’, he is reported to have told his allies (‘courtiers’ Viroli calls them) in parliament before the confidence vote.

Cabinet decisions, including the patched up deal between Berlusconi and Bossi on pension reform, which may yet allow the government to stagger on to the next crisis, are not decided by collective responsibility, but by deals and favours. Berlusconi always justifies his actions by drawing on his mandate at the polls, but without due regard to the constitutional framework of checks and balances and transparency set out in the Italian constitution. He changes his tactics frequently and has never felt hindered by constitutional niceties. We should not assume, therefore, that his departure is imminent.

It has been left to the EU, and to President Giorgio Napolitano, to demand he fulfils his obligations. This constraint is something new for Berlusconi and is plainly beyond the imagination or capability of the official opposition. That he is plainly not up to this task has been a tragedy for Italy and will mean more angst for his European allies over the coming days and weeks.