BERLIN - Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former Prime Minister who harbors ambitions to return to his old job, has had a year to adjust reality to his private world view. And now he’s letting fellow Italians and Europeans know how he thinks.
The widening of the Italo-German government bond "spread" shortly before his government fell last year was a "trick" specifically designed to remove him from power, Berlusconi said in an interview on Italian TV’s Canale 5 earlier this week.
The Italians can look forward to some lively months ahead, until the parliamentary elections in February or March that will also determine the next head of government. (According to Reuters, Berlusconi hedged Wednesday night on whether or not he will run, though few can imagine him stepping back from the spotlight.)
Earlier in the week, the 76-year-old declared that Germany "ordered all its banks to sell all the Italian bonds they were holding." A harsh enough accusation, but there was more to come: "And then American and international investment funds thought, if Germany is selling, there must be a reason behind it – and they started selling too.”
Nor is Italy’s 2012 debt, which the European Commission puts at 126.5% of economic output, a reason for market concern: in reality it is "not that high at all."
Berlusconi’s affirmations are not only an attempt to photo-shop the shortcomings of his period in office – the attacks aim to hone conspiracy theories among Italians and hit them where they are particularly vulnerable: their pride in their country, which many – and not only Italians – think is the most beautiful on earth.
By suggesting intrigue on the part foreign powers – headed by Germany – or the financial markets, Berlusconi is making a bid to win back popular support after suffering what the polls say are dramatic losses that have him lagging far behind.
In another tack, Berlusconi accused his successor Mario Monti of bending to Berlin’s will and hence "creating a crisis situation that is worse than it was when my government was in power."
He, Berlusconi, had always resisted complying with German wishes. "When I was representing Italy, I was one of the two or three heads of government with the most authority," he claimed.
Berlin bites back
By the watered-down rules of diplomatic communication, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle’s reaction to Berlusconi’s remarks bordered on outrage: the German government does not accept "Germany being turned into an object used for the purposes of conducting a populist election campaign. Neither Germany nor Europe are the cause of Italy’s present difficulties."
For her part, Chancellor Angela Merkel stated: "I support the reforms implemented by Mario Monti’s government" and noted that there was renewed investor confidence in Italy now and that the Italian people were sure to vote for continuing to keep Italy on the right track.
The spread that Berlusconi described as an invention has decreased on average since he left office. It already existed during his lively years at the helm, he just didn’t give it any attention.
But who’s expecting honesty from a sales pro who has just launched an election campaign, especially when he owns a media network. What he’s not saying is: the "trick" is real all right, and it’s costing the country a lot of money.
"Just what we needed," a northern European government representative remarked – without irony – about Berlusconi being back on the political scene: "Since last weekend, his comeback announcement has cost Italy something like 7 billion euros."