The editor of the Italian weekly L'Espresso's, Giorgio Bocca — writing recently about Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's statements that he never paid for sex or pursued his personal interests over those of the state — could not help bursting out with that Italian expression Che faccia di bronzo. This expression cannot be literally translated. A ‘face of brass' doesn't mean anything, indeed, but is used in Italian to express a feeling of deep disgust at a total absence of any kind of shame. And Bocca continued: "Berlusconi's [world] is the kingdom of consumption with no limits." On April 6, another trial opened in Milan involving Berlusconi, this time for ‘prostitution with girls under 18 years of age'. It added to the many trials underway, like tax evasion, misappropriation of public funds etc. which have been running for years.
In an age when sticking to basic ethical principles and saying it without hypocrisy is becoming increasingly difficult, the situation of Berlusconi is a tricky moment for essayists: everybody seems to agree he is a disaster for his country and for Europe as well. Yet, some people still vote for him. Is this only because there is no credible opposition in Italy?
Participating in "parties with very, very young girls", as the American Ambassador in Rome Ronald Spogli is reported by Wikileaks to have written in a telegram to the US State Department, should have normally led to the end of any political career. But Berlusconi is a kind of wizard. One day, he makes jokes about people living under tents after the Aquilla earthquake ("Isn't it something like enjoying holidays in the countryside during summer time?"). Another day, he smiles at "Obama's very tanned face". "His frequent gaffes and choice of words have offended nearly all categories of Italian citizens and many European leaders ... He has become the symbol of incapacity and inefficiency of the Italian government to face recurrent problems of the country: a non-competitive economic system, disintegration of infrastructure, growing public debt and endemic corruption," wrote the Ambassador as cited by Wikileaks.
The Moroccan-born escort girl Ruby will explain the difference between a tea-party and the "bunga bunga" ritual to which the guests at the Prime Minister's private dinners were subjected. At the end of the day, whatever happens to Ruby, nothing really serious is likely to happen to Berlusconi. The trial will be postponed, Berlusconi will escape once more and life will go on.
But Berlusconi is a true and trustworthy ally of the US and he needs its support. "Berlusconi can become the best possible ally if one makes him feel important ... He can be used to block laws that don't please the US", the ambassador wrote. He pointed at an amazing number of matters in which Obama ‘can obtain unthinkable advantages'.
And the list is a long one: from blocking laws opposing the development of genetically modified organisms to sending additional soldiers into Afghanistan, and from offering new facilities at the Vincenza or Signorella air-bases to managing the case of Abu Omar (who was kidnapped by the CIA in Milan and sent to Egypt in a case of extraordinary rendition). Ambassador Spogli, according to Wikileaks, concludes with a somewhat cynical but sharp comment: There is nobody to replace him but in any event, it is not a problem ‘since we have him to go where we want'. Is he not a strong ally?
Actually, there is another issue which is just as much worrying, if not for Europe then surely for Italy: the unhealthy alliance Berlusconi has with Northern League leader Senator Umberto Bossi. This gentleman has a very clear programme, which could be summarised as follows: "Let the hard working and white people from the North keep their money and send the Southern tanned faces to hell." Since Berlusconi's political forces cannot make it by themselves, he needs the support of the Northern League, which knows how to exact a price. They will therefore keep quiet on Berlusconi's scandalous behaviour but will go on pitting one part of the population against the other. Everybody knows where that may lead but they care little provided their own immediate and very personal needs are generously covered.
"Favours his own interest over those of the State," wrote Spogli of Berlusconi. This may well be the cement which finally links the Italian Prime Minister to the Northern League leader. What, therefore, are the Italian people waiting for to send Berlusconi home? A credible opposition, maybe, something which for sure has been missing for a significant period of time in this country. Meanwhile, Berlusconi can go on enjoying his bunga, bunga parties with young girls.
Luc Debieuvre is a French essayist and a lecturer at IRIS (Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques) and the FACO Law University of Paris.