International Papers

Il Cavaliere Cometh

Silvio Berlusconi’s victory in the Italian elections continued to dominate the European papers days after Sunday’s vote. After the brouhaha over the foreign press’s criticism of his candidacy (see this “International Papers” column and this “Foreigners”), editorial writers seem determined not to skulk away with their laptops between their legs. The consensus was that foreign opinion had not swayed Italian voters against “Il Cavaliere“: On Monday, Milan’s Corriere Della Sera carried a cartoon showing Berlusconi dressed as a bowler-hatted English gent tossing a copy of the Economist into the trash. Indeed, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung suggested the electorate had ignored the “uninvited guardians of Italy’s democratic morals” and “used their election to teach others in both Italy and Europe a lesson.” One of the most churlish reactions came from Britain’s Independent, which conceded:

[I]n any other European country, his election would have been unthinkable. … We believe that Italians have made a mistake that may return to haunt them sooner than many expect. … But his country has chosen him, in the knowledge of the facts—a knowledge, one might add, surely tempered by a large dash of pique at the lecturing by the foreign press. Rome’s partners in the European Union now have no choice but to accept the result and judge Mr Berlusconi by his deeds.

Many papers declared that this election—in the words of the Financial Times, “the first time that there has been a decisive switch between parties of the left and right since the collapse of fascism”—was a turning point in Italian democracy, a move to what the Times called “a more ‘normal’ system of alternating Left and Right blocs, rather than coalitions of splinter parties.” The Berlusconi coalition’s majority in both houses of parliament, based mostly on the success of his own party, Forza Italia, rather than that of his extremist coalition partners, promises rare political stability. As the FT noted, “Inherent flaws remain in a coalition embracing supporters of state intervention, neo-liberalism, Italian nationalism and northern separatism,” but nevertheless, Berlusconi is the unrivaled leader of the nation’s right.

The Irish Times predicted that the arrival of a right-wing government—the first since 1995 when the Popular Party came to power in Spain—would “alter the existing balance of political forces and policies in the European Union, which have been dominated in recent years by centre-left governments.” An op-ed in Canada’s conservative National Post suggested that Berlusconi’s “Atlanticism” (he shares President Bush’s views on tax reduction and missile defense) might lead to a schism in the European Union: “What may be emerging is a conservative political bloc in the Atlantic alliance to set against the social democratic bloc built around France, Germany, the EU and Brussels. It is plain Mr. Berlusconi … [has] far more in common with the U.S. President than … with Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder or France’s Lionel Jospin.” Still, Germany’s Die Welt said, “The rejoicing of conservative, non-socialist parties is premature,” since there is no simple line from Jörg Haider to Silvio Berlusconi via George W. Bush.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that the German government had not yet made an official post-election statement because it was waiting to see the composition of Berlusconi’s Cabinet—”a reference to the possible involvement of a neo-fascist party” (the National Alliance). Most agreed that there would be no repetition of the EU’s ostracism of Austria after Haider’s Freedom Party joined the government. The Jerusalem Post declared that Berlusconi’s election was “good for Israel” and that “[n]either the Northern League nor the National Alliance is anti-Semitic … in fact the National Alliance is considered among the most pro-Israel party in any European parliament.”

Last week, Berlusconi signed a “Contract With Italy” promising tax cuts, increased pension payments, public work projects, and massive job creation. The FT observed that it will be a challenge to meet these goals without building up a large deficit, although the “disciplines of euro-zone membership should also prevent a return to profligacy.” For many, the new prime minister’s massive business holdings, particularly his three TV networks, are problematic. Der Standard of Austria said, “In Italy, a man has come to power who already controls almost half of the country’s [media] market. Such a blend of economic interests and political power has so far occurred only in Yugoslavia under Milosevic or in Russia. … If this is tolerated within the EU, where are all our democratic principles? … If the new leader in Rome fails to make a clear distinction between his economic interests and political obligations, it will spell the moral bankruptcy of the EU.” Kurier of Austria offered a way for Berlusconi to meet his electoral promises and divest himself: “It will be hard for him to fulfill his pledges … unless he means to finance his program by selling his business empire, which would also remove the issue of conflict of interest.” (German translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

Speaking ill of the dead: The obituaries for the British writer and cad Simon Raven were written in a tone more expected in a roast than a eulogy. The Guardian’s began: “The death of Simon Raven, at the age of 73 … is proof that the devil looks after his own. He ought, by rights, to have died of shame at 30, or of drink at 50.” A contemporary observed that Raven “trailed an odour of brimstone.” According to the Daily Telegraph, “Raven the cad attained his finest hour when his wife sent the telegram: ‘Wife and baby starving send money soonest.’ He replied: ‘Sorry no money suggest eat baby.’ ” He turned to writing after he was forced out of the army for running up gambling debts. A Cambridge chum who had become a publisher promised to settle his bills, underwrite his nightly dinner, and pay him a modest weekly wage if he would move at least 50 miles from London. Installed in a seaside town, he produced 25 novels, eight volumes of essays and memoirs, and numerous screenplays. The Independent reported that his regime was “both strict and luxurious. The mornings were occupied in serious and steady writing. After a modest lunch washed down only by beer, he spent the afternoon on correspondence and exercise, while the evening … was given over to wining and dining with proper amplitude.” The Guardian noted, “His considerable earnings went on food, drink, travel, gambling and sex.” Raven’s self-penned epitaph was, “He shared his bottle—and, when still young and appetizing, his bed.”