Whenever Mr. Berlusconi resurfaces in the Italian media, my international friends ask me the same question again and again: Why? As an Italian living in Berlin, I have plenty of opportunities for discussion – partially because Berlin is (obviously) full of non-Italians, and partially because the political maestro has an unnerving tendency to swim below the surface for months, only to resurface suddenly and devastatingly like a great white shark in the movie “Jaws”.
Let’s make one thing clear in the beginning: we are flattered that internationals are so keenly interested in Mr. B. For decades, Italy has been led by more or less dignified politicians who did not spark any attention beyond the country’s borders. Or have you ever hear of Giulio Andreotti (seven-time prime minister), Amintore Fanfani (six times), or Mariano Rumor (five times)? My guess is that if you enjoyed the average middle class education, you have not. Yet nowadays, even immigrant taxi drivers in Manhattan, upon hearing that I am Italian, cannot help but turn away from New York traffic and declare happily: “Bunga Bunga!” Berlusconi has made us famous, for better or for worse.
Yet the “Bunga Bunga” phenomenon has also prevented non-Italians from understanding Berlusconi. Revelations about Mr. Berlusconi’s nocturnal performances (not to mention his track record) have mostly been the product of skillful journalism of the center-left media, and in particular of the work done by the excellent newspaper “La Repubblica”. Although scant reports about a politician’s relations with underage girls would have provoked an immediate resignation in any industrialized country, they did not in Italy.
Why is that? Italians like to call it “dietrologia”, or “conspiracy theory”. Many people were genuinely horrified by reports about his parties, including a particularly disturbing account that involved a woman posing as the soccer star Ronaldinho. But others argued that the unveiling of juicy details was a sign of hidden interests. In the beginning, Berlusconi’s backers believed that “the Left” was out to embarrass the prime minister and influenced state attorneys to pervasively investigate their hero’s life and economic activities.
When Mario Monti’s government came to power, the situation got even worse. Some Italians are rightfully angry at their political leadership: Monti – an academic – never ran for public office but was nominated overnight in 2011 by the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano after Berlusconi had resigned without following the normal procedure of a vote of no confidence. Under Monti, Italy’s tax rates have reached record levels – including a fantastic 69% rate on commercial profits –, and a new law assigns Italy’s IRS the power to accuse taxpayers of evading taxes (based on statistical analysis and an auditing process that would have fit well into Orwell’s novel “1984”). Now, taxpayers are presumed guilty and must prove the IRS wrong (not the opposite). Moreover, new elections have been scheduled for February 2013 after Mr. Monti resigned – again – without respecting formal parliamentary procedures.
This is enough to lead millions of Italians to believe that a hidden mastermind is lurking somewhere in the shadows. Even educated people proclaim in bars and on TV that Monti is a puppet of Goldman Sachs, a member of the Trilateral Commission or an envoy from the Aspen Institute (I myself am an Aspen Junior Fellow, yet I do not feel any special powers beyond the ability to wear a fancy red tie). According to this conspiracy theory, Berlusconi was forced to resign by German and French banks that had started a large and dramatic sell-off of Italy’s public debt, thereby shaking the country’s economy.
Indeed, when the shark rose to the surface, banks sold off Italian bonds. That was enough to complete the story: “Somebody out there” did not want the guy to participate in the upcoming elections. Popular websites claim that everything is a German-French plot, designed to wreck the Italian economy, devalue the country’s assets and buy them out at a discount price. Some even refer back to an episode from 1992, when the British royal yacht “Britannia” anchored off Italy’s coast. Aboard the ship, international investors and a few Italians discussed privatization plans as a solution to the country’s mild economic crisis at the time. Many assets were undersold or unnecessarily sold. Some fear that the “Britannia” might return once again.
Italians feel under attack, and they are willing to ignore Berlusconi’s out-of-office escapades because of it. Some also believe that Berlusconi really understood the secret agenda of Paris and Berlin and instead tried to forge alliances with Putin’s Russia, Qaddafi’s Libya, and Aznar’s Spain. It’s a Sun Tzu/Clausewitz approach to economic policy: If the enemy is too powerful, a side attack may be the only solution.
If Europe does not want Berlusconi back, constant reiterations of the “Bunga Bunga” theme won’t help. This merely confirms Italians’ belief that foreign countries are indeed trying to frame Italy. Criticism of his x-rated escapades merely strengthens Berlusconi. The only way out is to avoid treating Italy like Greece: Introduce an economic plan that would allow the country alternatives to tax increases. Otherwise, Europe might deserve another Berlusconi government.
Read more in this column Stefano Casertano: Steady as she goes