As Silvio Berlusconi has now discovered, publicly comparing a German politician to a concentration-camp guard is a really, really dumb idea, but the row that has followed has been out of all proportion to one very bad-tempered remark. With something approaching relish, Europe’s grandees are citing this gaffe as another reminder that the Italian premier is not up to the supposedly immense responsibilities of the presidency of the EU council. Of course, critics of Berlusconi claim to have more to their case than one stupid joke. They grumble about his unpredictability, his imperiousness, and the way that he is said to use his extensive media holdings to influence the democratic process.
Above all, they point to Berlusconi’s continuing legal problems as evidence that he is unfit to represent that city on a hill, the Europe of Chirac, Schroeder, and the Common Agricultural Policy. Berlusconi’s difficulties with the law — a tawdry, and seemingly endless, cycle of convictions, acquittals on appeal, and courtroom maneuvering — aren’t pretty, to put it mildly, but they have to be seen in the context of a country where politically motivated prosecutions are far from unknown. What’s more, they relate back to a period when Italy had yet to emerge from the grip of a political class so corrupt that, for many businessmen, the payment of bribes had become an inevitable, if unwelcome, part of everyday life.
Besides, it’s not as if Berlusconi went around beating people up. That distinction is reserved for German foreign minister Joschka Fischer. These days he’s a darling of the EU’s elite despite (or, perhaps, partly because of) his extremist past. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Fischer was part of a radical Left that was all too prepared to cross the line that divides legitimate protest from outright political violence. In 1973, Fischer took part in the brutal beating of a young policeman at a riot in Frankfurt. That moment of ‘revolutionary struggle’ was caught on camera, but most of his activities in those years remain clouded in somewhat sinister mystery. To take one example, after initial denials (attributed to ‘forgetfulness’) we now know that Fischer attended a 1969 PLO Conference in Algiers that passed a resolution calling for the extinction of the state of Israel. Fischer was there — an ugly place to be for a German less than twenty-five years after Auschwitz, and a gesture far more ‘insensitive’ than Berlusconi’s ill-judged insult.
Ancient history, you say? Well, let’s take a look at Lionel Jospin, a man widely respected across the EU for his “integrity.” He was France’s prime minister until last year, and the Socialist contender in that country’s presidential elections — until he was beaten into third place by a neo-fascist (and people call Italy’s politics a disgrace?). At about the time young Joschka Fischer was beating up a policeman young Jospin was an activist in a revolutionary Trotskyite group known as OCI. A youthful mistake? Perhaps, except that it was a youthful mistake that Jospin was to continue making into middle age. He maintained discreet links with OCI for another two decades. Jospin has said that he has no need to feel “red-faced” about his red past, but, strangely, he never chose to mention it to the electorate. Lionel’s affection for Leon (a mass murderer, lest we forget) was only discovered a few years ago — after Jospin had become prime minister).
And then there’s money. The wicked Berlusconi is not alone in having allegations of bribery and corruption thrown his way. Take a glance at Giscard D’Estaing, the man the EU hired to cobble together its new “constitution.” This squalid blueprint for permanent bureaucratic rule was unveiled recently amid scenes of choreographed rejoicing that reached their apogee when one brown-nosing Green MEP hailed Giscard as a new Socrates, a description that would have had the Greek sage reaching again for the hemlock.
The notoriously vain Giscard was, doubtless, delighted to have a second chance to leave a mark on history. These days his one, rather lackluster, term as president of France is best remembered for a widely rumored affair with sexy Sylvia Kristel (Emmanuelle) and, less impressively, for his habit of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of diamonds from Central Africa’s cannibal-emperor Bokassa. Giscard has never really had much to say about those glittering pebbles, but then he has never had to. The French establishment looks after its own — Giscard was never charged with any crime.
Ah yes, some might say, and that’s why Berlusconi is different. He has actually been prosecuted. Fair enough, but then so has Jean-Claude Trichet, the next chief of the European Central Bank. He was charged with approving false accounts for Credit Lyonnais, a bank that has cost the French taxpayer billions of dollars. He has, however, just been acquitted and is, therefore, free to take up his new job at the ECB in November. Now, an acquittal is an acquittal (unless it is Berlusconi who is being acquitted, in which case it doesn’t seem to count), and we must–of course–assume that the unfortunately-named Trichet is innocent, but it says something about the EU that it is prepared to appoint a man with this shadow over his past to one of the most sensitive–and powerful–financial jobs in the world.
Matters may not end so happily for Edith Cresson. She is an undistinguished former French prime minister best known for her suggestion that one in four Englishmen are homosexual. She was the EU’s ‘research and education’ commissioner between 1995 and 1999 and she is now facing criminal charges in Belgium of forgery and conflict of interest relating to her time in office in Brussels. The case has been under investigation for four years (not so long by Belgian standards for politically sensitive prosecutions) and is forecast to last at least another twelve months or so, after which the EU Commission will then decide whether to seek additional administrative penalties against her.
The commissioner responsible for investigating Cresson is, with nice symmetry, an undistinguished former opposition leader. Neil Kinnock led the Labour party to defeat against Mrs. Thatcher and, more remarkably, John Major. He is a man in a good position to know that the Cresson scandal was no isolated incident: Berlusconi’s alleged wrongdoing is small beer compared with what has been going on in Brussels. In 1999 Kinnock and all his fellow commissioners, “accepted responsibility” by resigning after the publication of a highly critical report detailing fraud and corruption within the commission then led by another undistinguished former prime minister — Luxemburg’s Jacques Santer. The report had been prompted by the persistence of Paul van Buitenen, a Dutch whistle-blower from the commission’s control department. He was suspended on half-pay and labeled a madman, but eventually his complaints grew too noisy for even the EU parliament to ignore and, somewhat reluctantly it authorized the independent inquiry that was to doom the Santer commission.
Santer continued to describe himself as “whiter than white,” but despite that, he was replaced by a slightly more distinguished former prime minister — Italy’s Romano Prodi. Prodi remains “president” of the commission today and is, we must presume, “whiter than whiter than white.” Only boors will choose to mention that, like Berlusconi, the pristine Mr. Prodi was under criminal investigation on at least two occasions in the 1980s and 1990s. No charges were ever brought, but it’s worth remembering that just as there tends to be something a little political about prosecutions in Italy, there can also be more than a touch of the political about decisions not to prosecute.
But back to Kinnock. As we have seen, he accepted his share of “responsibility” for the failings of the Santer commission by resigning. He then agreed to accept even more “responsibility” by being appointed to the new Prodi commission, promoted and being put in charge of “administrative reform.” This is why the Cresson case has ended up in his in-tray.
Madame Cresson, meanwhile, is not going quietly. Her prosecution by the Belgians is, she says, an attempt to “damage the name of France” (no cheap jokes, please) and she has sent a letter to Jacques Chirac asking for the “protection of the Republic.” That “protection” is something that Chirac, the toast of the EU parliament during the Iraq crisis, knows a bit about himself. The French government has now endorsed a law that will safeguard Saddam’s old pal from prosecution for as long as he is president. This isn’t unique (Berlusconi has secured similar immunity in Italy), but it may come in handy given certain characteristics of Chirac’s time as mayor of Paris, which reportedly included both traditional and more exotic misbehavior including some $2,000,000, for example, claimed in reimbursement for food and drink expenses.
Neil Kinnock’s “reforms” have, meanwhile, proceeded at a predictably leaden pace, prompting a despairing Van Buitenen to resign from the commission in 2002, saying it was “unreformable.” The EU’s Court of Auditors probably agrees. It has been criticizing the commission’s accounting for years. One of the few people who seem to really care about this is Marta Andreasen, the new chief auditor appointed to the EU last year. She went public with claims that the commission’s chaotic and confusing ‘system,’ which is meant to track around $100 billion a year, might be open to fraud. She was promptly suspended, but on full pay — there has been some progress). In fact, Andreasen’s comments were relatively restrained. The Court of Auditors has estimated that losses from fraud account for around five percent of the budget. To add to the drama, it turned out that the EU’s internal auditor (another determined Dutchman, this time by the name of Muis) had been preparing a report of his own. It backed up much of what Andreasen was saying, not that that did her much good.
To his credit, Muis persisted, but only for a while. He has tendered his resignation citing the now traditional “slow pace of reform.” There are suggestions that he was also frustrated by the commission’s reluctance to allow him to investigate the growing scandal at Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, a place where, it seems, nothing quite added up. The details are murky, but there’s talk of secret bank accounts and siphoned-off funds. As usual the whistle-blower, (Danish, this time, not Dutch), was left twisting in the wind. She claims to have been bullied out of her job. Requests to that great reformer Kinnock for legal assistance were rejected. That, at least, has now changed. The case, a spokesman for Kinnock told the Financial Times, is “more complicated than we originally thought.” Indeed it is.
Now, the point of reciting these tales of hypocrisy and corruption within the EU (and there are plenty of other stories where they came from) is not to exonerate Berlusconi. All those wrongs don’t make a right. At the same time, they do make the indignation over the Italian prime minister look a little, well, selective. For an explanation, forget the dodgy dealings back in Italy. Berlusconi’s real crime is something far worse — he is a capitalist, a conservative (of sorts) and, horrors, an Atlanticist, and in today’s increasingly intolerant Europe the reward for such heresy is meant to be political and legal destruction.
And that’s the real scandal.
— Mr. Stuttaford is a writer living in New York.