Opinion

John Lloyd

Goodbye to all that centrism

John Lloyd
Sep 30, 2013 20:17 UTC

How much longer will the political center hold in Europe? Its erosion, years in the making, is only picking up speed. In Italy, the latest political crisis presages the collapse of the centrist left-right coalition. In Austria, a recent election barely gave a similar coalition enough votes to continue governing. The European Union nations are hurtling toward elections next spring for the European parliament, which will bring real debate and divide to what has been a largely consensual assembly. Not far separated from the yolk of the financial crisis, nationalism is the politics of the times.

While Europe’s economy is making a slow, small improvement (with exceptions in the south), its politics are becoming much more fragile. Most economists say that the crisis can only be fully remedied by taking more powers into a powerful Euro-center, one that’s fiscal, financial, macro-economic, and thus political. Brussels believes it must be done: but no national government, even Germany’s, believes it could deliver popular approval for the move. The crisis is already forcing integration, yet causing citizens to recoil from the EU. That’s the central contradiction of Europe, stark and grim.

Voters now demand that their national governments protect them from the fallout of treaties that their political leaders signed. Citizens are concerned that immigration — especially from the two latest (and poorest) EU members, Romania and Bulgaria — is ruining their societies, and the growing recoil is forcing these politicians to retreat from their commitments. Manuel Valls, the French Interior Minister, said in an interview last week that many of the Roma (once known as gypsy) people who have come to France mainly from Romania and Bulgaria and live in squalid camps, should return. A European Commission spokesman responded the next day, saying such a move would break European law.

The day after that response, Pierre Moscovici, the French Finance Minister, came to Brussels with his country’s budget. Under a recent agreement, budgets must be approved by the European Commission before they’re debated in the French parliament. This timeframe, with much else, was decided during the turbulent past two years, to contain the crisis and calm the markets. Now, the consequences of that decision to seek European Commission budget approval, and the suppressed frustration at the national level over the straitjackets on their economies, are becoming more widely evident, and a generally EU-supportive press is becoming increasingly critical.

At the national level, the signs of rebellion from the Union continue to accumulate. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has held the stage in the Italian political opera since he was judged guilty of tax fraud in July, has talked grandly of defying the EU by adopting an expansionary program if and when his Forza Italia party is returned to office. Last weekend, he delivered on his threat to pull the Forza Italia ministers out of the coalition with the center-left Democratic Party. His party may split on the issue: he, a frisky 77 last Sunday, has turned strongly against an EU whose leaders pressed for his resignation in 2011. He now seems set to lead his loyal deputies into a Euroskeptic, populist position already occupied by Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement.

Italy confronts its fate as Berlusconi meets his

John Lloyd
Aug 1, 2013 21:37 UTC

FLORENCE — In Silvio Berlusconi’s 20th year on the scene of Italian politics, he has finally been found guilty by the country’s highest court of tax fraud. Berlusconi winked and nodded at tax evasion throughout his career. He protested that no one should pay more than one-third of their income in tax, even while the government he headed demanded up to 50 percent. He paid fortunes to dozens of the most expensive lawyers to delay, obfuscate and time-out charge after charge. That is the man who has been judged guilty of a vast fraud. In a country where tax crime runs from the bottom to (especially and most lucratively) the top of society, a judgment of this kind is even larger than the shock waves it will send through the country’s political system.

Judge Edoardo d’Avossa, in the first hearing of the fraud case in Milan last October, referred to “an incredible machine of fraud” set in place under the aegis of one who “had a natural capacity for crime.” The venerable judges of Italy’s Supreme Court took their time weighing in. Outside the vast palace that houses the court, a few enthusiasts for and against the former prime minister shouted at each other, and the broadcast reporters, half-demented by the need to fill the airwaves hour after hour, gave variations of “I have no clue what’s happening.” A little further off, a cinema showed posters advertising the French film L’Immortale, a story about the Marseilles mafia. The irony was picked up and bounced around the airwaves: would Berlusconi continue his apparent immortality?

No. But what does this mean for the coalition government, half of which is sustained by Berlusconi’s recent creation, the People of Freedom party? Despite an unpromising beginning, yoking together two parties that contained many who loathe each other and led by a modest man who was number two in the hierarchy of the center-left Democratic Party, it has given signs of real determination. It has a grasp of what must be done and a certain urgency, in the first three months of its life, in doing it. Prime Minister Enrico Letta, the man overseeing the coalition, may have a modest demeanor, but he has the advantage of surprise in a political culture that tends to privilege the flaunting of power. So far, he has shown more than a little steel beneath the mildness. He has said he wants to make large privatizations; to reduce the power of the Senate, which is presently co-equal with the lower house, leading to frequent blockages; and to change an election law that privileges tiny parties, incentivizing splits in larger ones.

Berlusconi awaits his judgment

John Lloyd
Jul 31, 2013 17:39 UTC

FLORENCE – Waiting for the judgment on Silvio Berlusconi is more nerve-racking than waiting for Godot, but should be over sooner. The Court of Cassation, Italy’s Supreme Court, should this week confirm or deny the lower courts’ sentence on the former prime minister of four years in prison and five years of exclusion from public life. (The court’s name derives from the French casser, to break: it can “break” the judgments of the lower courts, but none can break its own.)

The case that set Berlusconi on this path was one of tax fraud by his Mediaset company. He has also been found guilty of using an underage prostitute named Karima El Mahroug — “Ruby the Heartstealer” — and of abusing his office by securing her release from prison. 

The engines of his supporters, both in his party, the People of Freedom, and in the media, have been revved up to the highest pitch these past days, as the final judgment nears. They have claimed that it is absurd that a court should impose such a heavy sentence for what was a “mistake” in a tax declaration. They have underlined again and again what has been a major trope of Berlusconi’s 20years at the top of Italian politics — that the judiciary is a nest of communists waiting for the chance to destroy him. They have said, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that someone who has been as popular, and so often elected, as he has been should not be brought low by mere courts.

The special relationship: Putin and Berlusconi

John Lloyd
Jun 8, 2013 04:01 UTC

Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin are seen in a combination file photo.  REUTERS/File

The only other divorcee among Russian leaders before President Vladimir Putin was Czar Peter I, or Peter the Great.

Peter’s first bride, Evdokiya Lopukhina, was chosen for him by his mother — a mistake, at least for her son. Evdokiya, a deeply religious, conservative but strong-willed woman, didn’t like her husband’s modernization drive. With her equally niggly relatives, she so roused Peter’s ire that he secured a divorce and bullied her into a convent.

Italy elects the impossible

John Lloyd
Feb 26, 2013 16:22 UTC

In a parliamentary election this week, a majority of Italian voters – some 60 percent – chose parties that even a cursory glance could tell had no coherent idea of how to run an advanced and complex state (let alone Italy). Forty percent voted for two groups that have a recognizably sensible approach to governance, the largest of which is mainly made up of the Democratic Party, heirs to the former Communist Party of Italy. In one of the smaller ironies of the election, these heirs of an anti-capitalist, anti parliamentary revolutionary ideology were regarded, especially by investors, bankers and politicians of both the center-right and center-left, as Italy’s greatest hope for constitutional and market stability

Just under 30 percent of the vote went to the coalition put together by Silvio Berlusconi, a man not exactly proven at being able to govern Italy well. He is yesterday’s but also tomorrow’s man, who saw his run for office – once regarded as something of a joke – embraced as he promised to return, in cash, citizens’ payments of a property tax for which his party had voted; asked a young woman how often she climaxed; and remarked, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, that former dictator Benito Mussolini, whose racial laws condemned thousands of Italian Jews to concentration camps and death, had done some good things in his time. He didn’t win, but nearly did; which means he remains a major power in the land.

Tim Parks, the British writer who has married and lived for most of his life in Italy, wrote of his adopted people that “nonchalance is perhaps their greatest (talent)”, and continued: “Berlusconi’s political instincts mesh perfectly with the collective determination (of Italians) not to face the truth, which again combines with the deep fear that a more serious leader might ask too much of them. … Only in a country where tax evasion is endemic can one appeal to evaders at the expense of those who pay taxes.” 

Italy’s important election

John Lloyd
Feb 19, 2013 20:13 UTC

“I’ll be back” has been Silvio Berlusconi’s frequent slogan since he first departed from the political field two decades ago. His first government, in 1994, lasted a mere year. It ended in semi-farce when his main ally, the Northern League, pulled out. Prosecutors announced an investigation into alleged corruption while he hosted a G8 meeting in Naples. But he was back in 2001 through 2006, when he lost by a whisker to the left; then back again in 2008, when a stumbling left government lost its majority.

His resignation in 2011 was supposed – even by him – to be the final word. Instead, by the middle of last year, halfway through the austere term of the technocrat Mario Monti, he sniffed the air of a return from the political grave (or, according to his many detractors, recalled that being prime minister with the immunity of parliament was handy for one still facing criminal charges). Thus he inserted himself back into the leadership of the party he created, the People of Freedom. At 76, Berlusconi was on the stump once more. With bravura, he has promised to pay people back – in cash -- for the property taxes they have paid since his departure, he won a shouting match with two left-wing journalists on their own TV show and he grabbed every minute of broadcast space that he could. One could admire his tenacity if he had not been such a disaster — economically, politically and morally — for his country.

Berlusconi has a chance of winning this weekend’s elections. Roberto D’Alimonte, one of Italy’s leading political scientists, argues that the People of Freedom are a mere five points behind the left coalition’s 31 percent poll score. Berlusconi’s tally may be too low if some people are ashamed to tell pollsters they will vote for him. He’s a master of the late surge (as in 2006, where he narrowly snatched victory after trailing badly).

Searching for a charismatic leader in the grey halls of Europe

John Lloyd
Jan 15, 2013 15:07 UTC

In today’s Europe, no political leader is charismatic. Not one.

Francois Hollande ascended to the French presidency by deliberately proposing himself as “Mr. Normal” after the excitements of Nicolas Sarkozy. Mario Monti was persuaded to take the post-Berlusconi premiership because he was one of the cleverest and most responsible men in Italy. He proves it, by giving press conferences that last for hours, to the exhaustion of the Italian press corps, laying out fact upon fact. Mariano Rajoy of Spain prefers to be as near to invisible as a prime minister can be: a portrait of him last month in the left-leaning El Pais described him as “keeping as low a profile as possible.” Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland, is popular and a feisty debater: but he’s generally described as a “pragmatic centrist,” and is out-charmed and out-looked by his foreign minister, the British-educated Radoslaw Sikorski.

David Cameron manifests an occasional flash of raffish charm. But these are austere times, and the champagne lifestyle in which he indulged at Oxford’s Bullingdon Club for the Well-Heeled Drinking Man is never on show.

The capstone of this band of modest men is a woman, Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, one for whom the grand rhetorical gesture, the striking phrase, the public display of temperament, seem alien – a legacy, perhaps, of her upbringing as a Lutheran pastor’s daughter in the dourly Communist state of East Germany, where the lower the profile, the better. As the de facto leader of Europe, Merkel relies on her country’s power and her own, so far excellent, political instincts and maneuvers.

Silvio Berlusconi rises from the dead (again)

John Lloyd
Dec 11, 2012 16:43 UTC

It’s not over till Silvio stops singing. The onetime cruise ship crooner has called his party – the People of Freedom – to order. Most have obeyed his command to withdraw support for the technocratic government now running Italy, including those who until recently said it was a good thing old man Berlusconi was out of the running.

The pesky thing is, Berlusconi is right about some things. His party is right when it says “the situation is worse than a year ago.” Berlusconi will be right, as well, if he judges that the parties of the left – presently the likely winners in a future election – don’t rouse much enthusiasm in the electorate. And he may – just may – be right that his money, his media and the old Berlusconi magic might tip the scales toward him.

But is he right enough to win back power? It will depend on whether his fellow citizens’ disappointment at the results, so far, of Prime Minister Mario Monti’s austerity program is greater than their memory of how ineffectual and scandal-ridden Berlusconi was by the end of his rule. This week, Monti announced he is resigning once next year’s budget is approved.

The once and future Silvio

John Lloyd
Oct 30, 2012 21:39 UTC

A stake through the heart might keep Silvio Berlusconi out of Italian politics, but it better be hammered in hard. Last week he renounced all intention of running again for the premiership of Italy, then received a four-year prison sentence (later reduced to a year) for tax evasion.

Facing that, another man might have sought privacy, but the former prime minister shows – and licks – his wounds in public. He called a press conference and threatened to withdraw his party’s support of the government of technocrats led by Mario Monti. Without that, it would fall. Italy, its economy still fragile, would be plunged into a deep crisis. Berlusconi, who advertised his decision to renounce office as having been dictated by his “love of Italy,” now seems, in his rage over the sentence, to be imitating Samson, pulling down the pillars of the temple as he leaves it.

On the day Berlusconi was sentenced, Elsa Fornero, the cabinet minister responsible for work, pensions and equal opportunities, came to Oxford to speak to a largely Italian audience, a meeting I chaired. She – like Monti, an economics professor – is the kind of politician you find in a TV series like The West Wing. She speaks as one intelligent adult to others, patient in explaining complex legislation. She’s at the heart of the storm that the Monti government’s cuts have stirred in the still powerful trade unions.

Beppe Grillo: The anti-politics politician

John Lloyd
May 17, 2012 17:52 UTC

For some three decades, an Italian comedian named Beppe Grillo has satirized – viciously, at high volume, naming names – the corruption of Italian politics. Last week, in Italian elections, he won the honor of being a part of the very thing he mocks.

When Grillo started doing comedy, in the early eighties, the Socialist Party – led by Bettino Craxi, prime minister from 1983 to 1987 – was in coalition with the Christian Democrats, and was a byword for theft from the taxpayer. Italians would say: The Socialists haven’t been in power before, they know they won’t last, so they have to make money quickly – a kind of resignation to the inevitability of political larceny that the British mind (mine) found quite shocking. Grillo was also shocked: or at least, he made shock the basis of his act. More than any other public figure, he fashioned from the venality of Italian political life a dark, bitter and yet hilarious comedy.

The politicians were furious that their good name should be so besmirched, and got him banned from Italian TV – which, in the eighties, was monopolized by the channels of the state broadcaster RAI, in turn under the control of the politicians.

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