Renegade leader shows pitfalls of the rotating EU presidency

Observers say Berlusconi is holding back reforms with his flamboyant style

November 28, 2003|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ROME - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi likes to do things his way.

In recent weeks, he has staked out policies that are out of line with those of the European Union. This might not be a problem, except that Berlusconi is president of the European Union these days.

His renegade style, especially where sensitive relations with Russia and Israel are concerned, has led to grumbling in Brussels, Belgium, where the European Union has its headquarters, and to calls for the reform of the EU presidency system.

"He embodies everything that is wrong with the system," said Steven Everts, a senior research fellow with the London-based Center for European Reform. "He lacks the political discipline and is at odds with agreed EU policy."

The presidency of the European Union is rotated among member countries every six months. Italy and Berlusconi took over July 1 and will relinquish the position to Ireland on Jan. 1. This term is a critical one because the 25-nation body is trying to complete a landmark constitution by year's end.

The presidency is largely symbolic, because other executive officers oversee key policies. But observers of the European Union contend that a sharp and talented prime minister occupying the post can become an effective advocate for the organization. An inactive or inattentive leader can slow projects and allow the organization to drift.

Among the reforms being discussed are eliminating the position or limiting its functions to economic matters and excluding foreign policy.

There is no doubt that someone as flamboyant as Berlusconi draws attention to what is otherwise a mundane office. Brussels was especially irked when Berlusconi played host to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin at an EU-Russia summit this month in Rome. At a news conference ending the summit, Berlusconi stunned just about everyone by supporting Moscow's war in separatist Chechnya and glossing over Putin's decision to jail Russian magnate Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky.

"I'm acting as President Putin's defense lawyer here," Berlusconi said, adding that he felt that the media had distorted the picture in Chechnya.

The European Union has made improving Russia's human-rights record in Chechnya a condition of membership. EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten said the Italian prime minister was wrong.

As a result of Berlusconi's remarks, the European Union felt obliged to clarify its position on Russia and put it in writing, and the European Parliament recently censured Berlusconi's comments. Berlusconi, speaking in Warsaw, Poland, the night of the censure, said he had been misunderstood. An aide said in a telephone interview the next day that Berlusconi felt it was important to maintain good relations with Moscow.

Ben Crum, a research fellow with the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, said Berlusconi was not necessarily doing long-term damage to the organization but was sowing confusion and wasting time.

The Berlusconi aide said the prime minister frequently speaks his mind but that he does so as the head of Italy, not of the European Union.

Critics say Berlusconi's actions and the six-month presidential rotation are harmful because the European Union urgently wants to project a coherent and effective foreign policy.

"Any non-European who has to deal with the EU finds it baffling," Everts said. "Changing the leader every six months is no way to run a serious organization."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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