If you believe the “mainstream” European press, you now think that the European Union is suffering through one of its worst moments because the current president is Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister. The EU’s presumed misery reportedly rests on the “fact” that Berlusconi is inordinately corrupt, and for extras owns magazines and television stations, thereby putting him in a unique conflict of interest.
In fact, they hate Berlusconi not because he’s corrupt (can you imagine Jacques Chirac being upset over corruption?) — for which there is no convincing evidence — but because he has shown them up, time after time. Along with Spanish President Aznar, Berlusconi has led the “Coalition of the willing,” broken with the anti-American Franco-German axis, and established a special relationship with George W. Bush (and Tony Blair) that leaves other European leaders surprised and envious. Later this month, he will fly to Crawford, Texas, to deepen his already strong personal friendship with the Bushes, and further annoy those who consider themselves the only legitimate European factotums.
To be sure, Berlusconi has been officially charged with corruption — in connection with events that allegedly took place 20 years ago. Ever since, Italian magistrates have been unsuccessfully trying to prove Berlusconi’s guilt, and, failing that, to wreck his political career by leaking allegations and, in a particularly grotesque exercise several years ago on the eve of a summit meeting in Italy, announcing that Berlusconi was the target of a criminal investigation. The Italian parliament just passed an immunity law for government officials, so the judges will not have to prove their case. But there wasn’t much of a case to begin with (I mean, isn’t 20 years enough? Even our own special prosecutors went away within eight or nine years).
As for the celebrated conflict of interest, yes, it is unseemly and perhaps it is even undemocratic in some way for the head of the government to have his own TV channels. But you have to look at the situation in context. Prior to Berlusconi, all Italian television was state-owned, which is to say it was under the control of the government. Which is to say that every Italian prime minister, like virtually every other head of government in the Old World, had the very same conflict of interest as Berlusconi. I used to ask Italian friends whether they thought the government should publish its own newspaper every day. Everyone thought it was a bad idea. So, I would say, why should they broadcast their own news programs? Duh.
Berlusconi busted the state monopoly on TV, and a good thing it was. At least some of the time, Italians could get a different version of the news (and much better movies and sports, which is what actually made the private channels so successful). And if his critics took the time to watch his channels, they would find that the most popular programs — above all, the tedious evening talk shows that go on for hours on end — feature people who are openly anti-Berlusconi. But the very fact of television competition has brought greater variety to Italian TV, just as you’d expect. So all those who believe in freedom of the press ought to celebrate Berlusconi, instead of damning him.
I think the biggest reason for the near-unanimous attack on Berlusconi is that he’s often had the courage to speak the truth when the rest of the Eurocrats were cowering behind the conventional wisdom. Two examples stand out. The first was at a European conference shortly after 9/11, when Berlusconi said that Western civilization was clearly superior to the Islamic version. We had freedoms that they did not, we were tolerant and they were not, and we were more creative and more wealthy and more productive. The roof fell in, he was written off as a hopeless paleolith, and he even backed off somewhat.
The second example took place a couple of weeks ago, when he went to Israel and, faced with the usual choice, opted to meet with Sharon instead of Arafat. Not only, but he signed a defense agreement with the Israelis, and then permitted himself a bon mot at the expense of Chirac. Berlusconi had nothing good to say about Palestinian terrorism, and noted that Chirac, by siding with the Palestinians, had “missed a good occasion to remain silent.” It will be recalled that Chirac had blasted the “new” European countries for supporting the United States before Operation Iraqi Freedom, and had tried to intimidate the Central Europeans by saying they had missed the opportunity to shut up.
Thankfully, George W. Bush remembers his friends, especially those who share his values, as Berlusconi does. Both are passionate and outspoken freedom fighters. Both are deeply religious. Both have come to appreciate the importance of family values, and both are remarkably independent of the dominant culture that preaches appeasement of evil.
They should have quite a party in Texas. I have only one question about it: Will it be American cuisine and Italian wine, or Italian food and American wine? There’s a question to challenge our finest diplomatic minds.