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He turned to the same techniques he'd used to create Italy's first commercial television network: he took surveys, honed his product, lined up and trained attractive candidates and even sent out "campaign kits" to each new recruit including the same handshake and hygiene hints he confided to the group of young diplomats. He was the first Italian politician to understand that television performance is a key to victory. "When you go on TV you are entering people's homes; you're not going to the football stadium," says Giuliano Urbani, Italy's Culture Minister and a founding member of Berlusconi's Forza Italia Party. "You need to dress appropriately, behave in a certain way and speak directly." Berlusconi's product is himself and Italians seem happy to buy it. The international press has portrayed Berlusconi as something of a reality TV show gone awry. But the Prime Minister is a formidable character and Ginsborg at the University of Florence warns that his rise should not be written off as a purely Italian phenomenon. Ginsborg says the tycoon leader is the symptom of a larger political problem posed by a shrinking pool of media outlets: too much power and control in too few hands.
"Since 1989," Ginsborg argues, "there has been an unprecedented personalization of politics and concentration of economic and media power in Europe. Berlusconi is just the most highly developed form of this." In London, David Puttnam, a film producer and friend of Tony Blair's, warned in the House of Lords that "we certainly do not want the Berlusconi-ization of British politics." Mario Segni, a conservative Italian M.E.P. and Berlusconi opponent, has introduced a bill to limit media concentration in the E.U. "Berlusconi poses a new question to Europe and the world," Segni says. "Can you have democracy without rules that protect the pluralism of information?"
[an error occurred while processing this directive]Berlusconi brushes off these attacks as the sour grapes of a debilitated opposition, noting that the center-left failed to pursue conflict-of-interest legislation when it was in power before he came to office. Though he still occasionally hints at resolving the issue, the Prime Minister insists that there's a vast left-wing conspiracy in Italy: the leftist inclinations of most journalists, he says, outweigh his economic and political influence. In any case, he argues, his private stations must respond to consumer demands not his demands or they would soon go out of business.
Control of the Italian media, in any case, won't help Berlusconi conquer the E.U. His government will be sounding out the other members to find compromise on the knottiest parts of the new constitution. Smaller states are keen to see more real power centered in Brussels, while some of the larger ones notably the U.K. vow to block that. The Italian government's own stance is ambivalent, with good reason: Italy's traditionally strong support of Brussels has to be balanced with the euroscepticism of his coalition members in the Northern League.
Above all, the ever-ambitious Italian leader wants Rome to be the birthplace of the "New Europe." Berlusconi will try to secure Rome as the site for the signing of the E.U.'s new constitution in 2004. Such a ceremony would provide the kind of coup de théâtre that marks him as a statesman to voters at home. But it would also make for a touch of historical symmetry, since the E.U. traces its origins to the 1957 Treaty of Rome that established the European Community.
All this may be hard to achieve, given the prickly relationship Berlusconi has with French President Jacques Chirac. In the middle of Chirac's speech at the G8 meeting last year in Canada, Berlusconi stood up and started handing out watches as gifts to the other leaders, a delicious political snub. The two wily politicians seem bound to mix it up whenever they meet. Lately, though, Berlusconi seems to be getting the better of Chirac. When Berlusconi shunned Arafat during a Middle East visit last month, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin complained that he "did not respect the European line." The Italian responded by saying that France "had missed a good opportunity to keep quiet" precisely the incendiary words Chirac used against the "New Europe" countries that had voiced their support for the U.S. policy on Iraq in February. E.U. diplomats are looking forward to seeing whether Berlusconi and Chirac will find new ways to head-butt.
It's difficult for any single leader to dramatically influence E.U. policies during the brief presidency. So one senior European diplomat figures Berlusconi will approach the next six months as a sort of publicity tour. "It will be the best choreographed semester," the diplomat predicts. "Lots of glitz." A little substance might help too, but then that wouldn't make for such well-packaged prime-time viewing.