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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 December, 2003, 09:12 GMT
Italy's chaos-prone EU presidency

By William Horsley
BBC European affairs correspondent

After six months with Silvio Berlusconi at the wheel, the European Union is like a battered car that is due for a re-fit.

Silvio Berlusconi

The EU uses a time-share system for its common institutions. It allows a different driver to take the wheel of the machine every six months, with each member-state taking turns to hold the EU presidency and chair its meetings.

Mr Berlusconi, Italy's debonair and super-rich prime minister, drove the EU's ageing machine badly - some say recklessly - over rough terrain during the past half-year.

Flashing his trademark smile, he declared during the Brussels summit in mid-December that his period as leader of the EU had been a "triumph".

But the next day the 25 EU leaders left amid talk of "catastrophe" and "crisis".

Secret formula?

The talks broke down when Mr Berlusconi, their chairman, admitted that he had failed to find a basis for agreement on the historic task at hand, accepting the text of a future EU constitution.

A fiasco but not a disaster
EU external affairs commissioner Chris Patten on the Brussels summit
None of the other leaders blamed Mr Berlusconi in public, but among themselves many were fuming.

One participant said it was the worst-prepared summit that anyone could remember.

Chris Patten, the European commissioner in charge of external affairs, says the best gloss that can be put on the Brussels failure is that it was "a fiasco but not a disaster".

But the abiding memories of the summit are negative for Mr Berlusconi.

He spoke breezily at the start of having a secret formula to bridge the dispute between rival groups (with Poland and Spain on one side, and France and Germany on the other) over the voting rights of different EU states.

Football and women

In the event Italy offered only a re-hash of old ideas as the basis of a compromise.

All Silvio Berlusconi had up his sleeve was a gelato-stained napkin with a few bad jokes scribbled on it
MEP Graham Watson
As the EU leaders glumly sat around a big table in silence, Mr Berlusconi jokily suggested that they should talk about lighter topics, such as "football and women".

The EU's collective heart sank. Later a prominent member of the European parliament, Graham Watson, had a dig at Mr Berlusconi, saying that all he had up his sleeve was "a gelato-stained napkin with a few bad jokes scribbled on it".

Mr Berlusconi is an unconventional kind of leader, a business tycoon-turned-politician who came to power promising to energise Italy as he had his own business empire.

Virtually his only training in high-wire international politics was his first, abortive stint as Italy's prime minister, which lasted less than a year in 1994. He came back to power two years ago.

His political opponents accuse him of misusing his political power to protect his own interests, by enacting laws to provide himself with immunity from prosecution in a high-profile corruption trial.

Crashes and collisions

Already before taking over the EU presidency Mr Berlusconi had committed several big political gaffes, such as publicly claiming that European civilisation was "superior" to that of Islam. He later apologised.

Mr Berlusconi's six months at the wheel of the EU were marked by more crashes and collisions:

  • In July, on his second day in the EU driver's seat, Mr Berlusconi had a diplomatic collision with Germany.

    He insulted a German member of the European parliament, saying he should play the role of a Nazi concentration camp guard in a movie. He claimed to have been misunderstood.

  • In October he ignored the EU's agreed policies at an EU-Russia summit meeting held after the arrest of top executives of the Yukos oil firm. Mr Berlusconi failed to remind the Russian Government to abide by the rule of law. Instead he declared President Putin to be in the right, and joked that he was now Mr Putin's "defence lawyer".

    The European Commission later said Mr Berlusconi had not expressed EU policy.

  • As Italy's own deadline to reach accord on the EU constitutional talks came closer Mr Berlusconi himself went missing. Scheduled EU summits with Canada and India were called off because the Italian premier was indisposed.

    Major service due

    Then came the Brussels summit fiasco. After a gruelling six months for the passengers in the other EU member-states, the Italian premier has taken back the EU's hire car to the shop.

    Its political mechanics are checking for dents and punctures, and they have diagnosed major engine trouble.

    The next temporary owner, the Irish Government, will keep the car in the garage for an intensive service, before taking the EU vehicle out for a drive, to see if it is roadworthy again.

    Italy's leader has got away with no official police points on his licence, but a reputation for careless driving.

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