|Berlusconi jokes with Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev at the G20 summit [EPA]|
The G8, the gathering of the world’s wealthiest nations, will be holding a three-day meeting this week in Italy, where the prime minister is hoping to divert attention from a major scandal.
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Initially it was due to be held at La Maddalena, a former naval base in Sardinia, but after April’s earthquake in L’Aquila, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, decided to switch the venue to the disaster zone as an act of solidarity with those who had been so badly hit.
Privately, those who have been organising the gathering are furious. Their well-laid plans had to be scrapped and there was a mad scramble to get facilities, security and accommodation switched in less than three months.
Officially though, they support their prime minister.
The media are being bussed in from various locations – some more than two hours drive from the summit. The leaders will be housed in pretty basic accommodation on site, although the suite given to Barack Obama, the US president, is apparently “very, very nice”.
For Berlusconi, the gathering couldn’t come at a better time because even by Italian standards, he is mired in a pretty spectacular scandal.
Source of embarrassment
It centres on lingerie models, drunken parties, pictures of an allegedly naked prime minister (Czech not Italian) and now a criminal investigation into the use of expensive escorts and even possible drug dealing.
He is regarded as a witness rather than a suspect.
|The summit will be held in L’Aquila, where a devastating earthquake hit in April [AFP]|
All of this is alleged to have taken place in Sardinia – where Berlusconi has a number of villas and promised to house those hit by the earthquake.
However, it is believed that no-one has been able to take up that offer.
Now he hopes to divert attention to the scandal by playing host on the international stage.
Berlusconi is the longest-serving leader of the G8, but has been a source of embarrassment at recent gatherings.
During the G20 in London when world leaders gathered for a picture with the British Queen, he yelled: “Obama, Obama”, prompting Her Majesty to ask: “Why does he have to shout?”
Just a few days later at the Nato gathering, he missed the “family photo” completely because he was on the phone avoiding the steely stares of his host, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor.
Drop in popularity
But if the summit is a success, things might start to get better at home.
The Italian president has made a rare public comment, asking the press to “suspend public discussion on controversial issues”.
“Berlusconi will be hoping this G8 meeting will go some way to re-building his reputation and his standing”
It is an appeal likely to fall on deaf ears. Berlusconi’s personal ratings have taken a hit, especially among young people and Catholics.
Enrico Franceschini is the London-based correspondent of the La Repubblica newspaper. He has been watching developments from a distance.
“We are Catholics and we know you can sin but ask for forgiveness but there is a limit to the decency of the public and Silvio Berlusconi seems to have crossed that.”
There is a lot to cover in the two days of talks; Iran has forced its way onto the agenda and the G8 may discuss sanctions.
Afghanistan, the Middle East, the financial crisis and global warming will all be discussed too, but the biggest arguments may come over aid to Africa.
A scandal too far?
Four years ago when the summit was held in Gleneagles in Scotland, leaders promised to double their aid to Africa by $25bn a year by 2010.
The financial crisis has forced all countries to reconsider that figure – and the country giving least? Berlusconi’s Italy.
He has developed a “whole of country” approach which aims to bundle together not just government giving but what charities, individuals, companies and even the Vatican offer.
That has led some campaigners to call for Italy to be kicked out of the G8.
Five countries will be there on the sidelines – China, Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa – the outreach five hoping for membership of an enlarged organisation.
And Muammar Gadaffi, the Libyan leader, will also attend there as head of the African Union delegation.
Berlusconi will be hoping this G8 meeting will go some way to re-building his reputation and his standing.
Remember this is a man who has stood trial and been cleared six times while in office, but he’s clearly worried that for the Italian voters this is a scandal too far.