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Silvio Berlusconi was not exactly a welcome guest when he turned up in Brussels for the pre-summit gathering of Europe’s centre-right leaders.Some worried about being photographed next to Mr Bunga-Bunga.
Others muttered about him being a “destructive force” after he had announced his “return to the field”, prompting the technocratic prime minister, Mario Monti, to announce his resignation.
Across Europe there is worry that Mr Berlusconi will upset the fragile financial calm that Mr Monti, a man much loved in European chancelleries, has brought Italy and, in turn, destabilise the whole euro zone (see my column here).
Mr Berlusconi plainly relished all the attention, saying: “When I read newspaper headlines that say ‘Berlusconi Returns; Europe Trembles’. I feel a great sense of exhilaration. What power!”
The European Peoples Party (EPP) is too polite ever to throw out a troublesome member of the “family” (though some reprimanded him earlier in the week). Instead, Europe’s conservative leaders made clear their displeasure indirectly.
They invited Mr Monti to the same lunch beneath the chandeliers and gilded stucco of the marble room of the Académie Royale de Belgique and showered him with praise.
Without ever saying so explicitly, Angela Merkel of Germany, Fredrik Reinfeld of Sweden, Jyrki Katainen of Finland and the others made clear they wanted Mr Monti to run in the election as the champion of a new Italian centre-right movement. Mr Berlusconi claims this is precisely what he wants too—if only the professor would agree to do it.
Mr Berlusconi says he asked Mr Monti to run in the past and, even now, would be prepared to “step back” if the professor were to take up the challenge. “Monti is used to being supported by everybody as a non-partisan figure. To take sides diminishes him.
It is difficult for him,” explained Mr Berlusconi. Yet he thinks Mr Monti could bring together Mr Berlusconi’s fast-disintegrating People of Freedom (PdL) party and various new and old centrist factions in a great rassemblement. If he does not, the danger is that the centre-right will fragment “and the country will be in the hands of the left”.
To forestall that prospect, Mr Berlusconi was willing to run again. “I have no ambition. I am 76 years old,” he declared. But without Mr Monti he still offered the centre-right’s best chance of winning.
Mr Berlusconi said his party had not withdrawn confidence from Mr Monti. So what of Mr Monti’s austerity policies that Mr Berlusconi has harshly denounced? Well, they were not really Mr Monti’s fault, Mr Berlusconi now says.
He also toned down the criticism of Germany. “I have never been anti-European,” insisted Il Cavaliere. The crisis, he said, has been caused by the ECB’s refusal “to print money” and guarantee the debts of euro-zone members.
He began the day in Brussels with an appearance at the Bruegel think-tank for the launch of a book on European democracy co-authored with Sylvie Goulard, a French liberal member of the European Parliament. The event was held behind closed doors, but in any case Mr Monti gave little away.
His arrival at the EPP summit a few hours later had been kept secret. His entourage claims he had attended “because he was invited”. Moreover, he had been associated with the EPP during his time as a European commissioner.
Still, for a man who has been careful to appear non-partisan during the past year as prime minister, his arrival at an EPP summit had the feel of an act of political theatre. In doing so, Mr Monti seemed to take a step closer to running for office. Brussels was self-evidently neither the time nor the place to announce his candidature.
But if he takes the plunge, being seen to have the endorsement of Europe’s leaders will be an important electoral asset. The new movement, say some in Italy, may even take the name of “Peoples Party”.
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