Berlin mood on Berlusconi: all we can do is hope

April 17th, 2008 - 11:21 am ICT by admin  

By Frank Rafalski
Berlin, April 17 (DPA) Germany is no fan of Italian premier-designate Silvio Berlusconi and the mood in the German capital has been muted as political figures absorbed the news of his re-election. There was no immediate government reaction, but the tenor among senior officials willing to be quoted was that the path ahead would be more difficult where Italy was involved, and that all Berlin could do now is hope it gets lucky.

At the various government ministries, officials stressed that Berlusconi was an advocate of European integration.His pronounced friendship with the US would also fit in well with efforts by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to revive trans-Atlantic cooperation.

Peter Hintze, state secretary at the economics ministry, said, “The Italians elected Berlusconi for domestic reasons. They want reforms and greater stability. Nothing is going to change in Italy’s foreign policy.”

Hintze is a political appointment from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and an expert on European policy.

Martin Schulz takes a different view. The German, who heads the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, was famously told by Berlusconi in Strasbourg in 2003 that he ought to be cast as a concentration-camp guard in a movie.

A return to the “popular press style of politics” was likely under Berlusconi, Schulz predicted. This was likely to slow down European integration projects.

Officials praised Tuesday the reported recall of EU commissioner Franco Frattini to Rome as Berlusconi’s foreign minister, saying this was a sign of commitment to European integration.

However most German analysts doubted that Italy’s richest man, whose supporters include xenophobic and far-right groups, was likely to bring Italy out of its long-term crisis during his third term as prime minister.

Merkel has kept up a close acquaintance with Berlusconi because their parties are associated through a EU-level group, the European People’s Party (EPP). On Merkel’s first visit to Rome as chancellor in 2005, Berlusconi was still prime minister.

“They’ve always got on with one another,” aides repeatedly say. A spokesman from her office said was diplomatically polite Tuesday, saying, “The chancellor is looking forward to her cooperation with Berlusconi.”

Berlin hopes Italy will move swiftly to ratify the current EU reform treaty, but potential trouble looms in the second half of the year when EU nations must settle appointments to various top EU jobs.

Noting Berlusconi’s hard-driving style, one Berlin parliamentary figure said, “The Italians might try to play for their own advantage.”

But government figures in the EU’s biggest nation seemed less concerned about that, recalling that Berlusconi said before his re-election that he aimed to stay close to Sarkozy and Merkel, with the three guiding “the future of Europe”.

That is not Merkel’s style of talk, and analysts say she is likely to have her work cut out persuading EU nations to keep in line now that Berlusconi is back on deck. Berlusconi’s eccentric style used to cause friction at EU events during his previous premierships.

Those who watch Merkel closely say she is equal to the task of dealing with “a couple of alpha wolves” in Paris and Rome.

“The chancellor has tamed Sarkozy several times. I think she can manage Berlusconi too,” forecast one diplomat.

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