It Ain't Over 'Til the Tan Man Sings

Italy's most outspoken journalist on the secret to Silvio Berlusconi's continued survival -- and why it may be coming to an end soon.

On Oct. 14, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in parliament amid a barrage of criminal cases, sex scandals, and embarrassing taped conversations, not to mention Italy's worst financial crisis in decades. The news prompted many around the world to ask: Just what will it take for Berlusconi to lose his job?

To shed some light on this topic, Foreign Policy spoke with Beppe Severgnini, one of Italy's best-known journalists, a veteran Silvio-watcher, and author of the new book Mamma Mia: Berlusconi's Italy Explained for Posterity and Friends Abroad. We discussed the prime minister's control over the media, the incompetence of his enemies, and whether Italian men are actually envious of their leader's bunga-bunga lifestyle.

Foreign Policy: So let's start with the basic premise of your book. How is it that Silvio Berlusconi has managed to survive half a dozen scandals, any one of which would have ended the career of most democratic leaders?

Beppe Severgnini: Well, there are 10 reasons in my book. At this moment, you can say a few of these reasons are more important than others. Even now, he continues to introduce himself as an outsider and a non-politician, though he's certainly one of the most experienced politicians in Europe -- as shrewd as you can get. He can maneuver in Parliament and get just enough votes -- and the way he actually gets those votes is by offering government posts, as he did last week.

Number two, the alternative is still pretty weak. The opposition is growing, but a lot of people still don't see an alternative. Personally, I think any alternative is better. You and I could form a government, and I think we'd do well compared to what is happening now.

Third, Italy is a very tribal culture. There is a very tribalistic attitude toward politics. There are people who would vote for the devil if it would keep the other side out.

But all of these are kind of thinning out now, and definitely Berlusconi is on his way out. It's a matter of weeks or months.

FP: So what was the turning point? When did his tricks stop working?

BS: I think it's a combination of scandals that are literally beyond imagination. It probably started in 2009 when he attended the birthday party of a girl who was turning 18, which means he was seeing her before she was of age. And then his wife left him and wrote a very vitriolic letter in the newspapers saying, "My husband is sick and is offering virgins to the Minotaur," or whatever. So this opened up a Pandora's box of scandals that have lasted for two years.

He might have survived that too, if not for this massive economic crisis. Italy's got a huge public debt: 120 percent of GDP. The costs of servicing that debt are going up. So it's a combination of bad economic data and this barrage of scandals that probably did it for him.

Don't forget, youth unemployment in Italy is 28.5 percent, which is the highest in Europe after Greece. Are you happy with a government that keeps your kids out of work? During a rare public meeting not long ago, Mr. Berlusconi told a girl who had asked him what she should do about her future, "You're pretty. You should marry a rich husband."

FP: I'm curious what you thought of the argument in a recent article in the New Yorker, which made the case that Berlusconi's attitude toward women -- turning models and dental hygienists into parliamentarians because of their looks and all of that -- is actually normal for Italian men, which accounts for much of his appeal.

BS: I think that's a little unfair. Of course, Berlusconi embodies many things that are lurking behind the national psychology. But to say it's typically Italian, no. Yes, if you tell me that most Italians are flirtatious when they see a pretty woman, even when they shouldn't be; yes, it's absolutely true.

But I don't know any Italian man who has partied with 25 women a third of his age. A, because it's too tiring, and B, because it's too expensive.

FP: One of my favorite chapters of the book is what you call, "the Zelig Factor," Berlusconi's ability to transform the way he acts and presents himself depending on whom he's talking to -- conservative with Bush, a macho man with Putin, a man of God with the pope, etc. How does he get away with this? Don't people think he's a hypocrite?

BS: No, they think he's a great actor. Don't forget that the man knows about television.

He knows nothing about the Internet and social networks. He's completely clueless. He was once sitting next to Mubarak at a press conference (By the way, all his friends in North Africa are gone: Qaddafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali. If I were Putin, his fourth-best friend, I'd be pretty nervous.) But anyway, he was sitting next to Mubarak and said, "Now we can find out anything about anyone. We just have to look it up on ‘Gogol.'" It took the audience a minute to realize he was talking about Google. I quipped that we have the only prime minister who gets his information from Russian novelists.

So he knows nothing about the Internet, but he's really a pro at daytime television. So in terms of appealing to the lower-middle class on TV, he's the master of the universe. He knows what to say, how to dress, how to put on makeup, everything. He's a master salesman.

Zelig, the character in Woody Allen's film, transforms himself so he will be accepted. That's key to understanding Berlusconi. He wants to be loved, but also to sell something to his brothers. He's a very strange combination of a great salesman and a very insecure man who needs to be appreciated.

FP: What's it like for you, as a journalist who's obviously very critical of the government, working in a country where the prime minister has such overwhelming control over the mass media?

BS: I'm very lucky. I work for Corriere Della Sera, which is the largest newspaper, and I can say whatever I want. I write for the Economist and the FT, and I can write whatever I want. On television, I appeared on Sky Italia for many years, and I could say whatever I wanted.

But I'm in my 50s. I'm not your average 20-something journalist. It's not so easy for me to say, "Well, who cares?" Many of my colleagues do care, and they know they won't have any access to public television because he controls it. They won't have any access to private television because he owns it. Of course, there are satellite networks and newspapers that don't belong to him, but still you're talking about a good half of the media being completely enslaved to him.

The sad thing is that many of my colleagues think it's only fair that if you have right-wing views you should work for his papers. I think this is shocking. There are lots of right-wing journalists in the U.S., but I don't think they'd be happy working for a newspaper owned by the politician they support. I think it's embarrassing. But maybe I'm naive.

FP: You talk a lot about the incompetence of the Italian left. How much do you think is their fault and how much do you think is just how difficult Berlusconi has made it for anyone to run against him?

BS: It's about two-thirds their fault and one-third objective difficulties. They are divided, which is unexcusable. They don't have a program. They don't have a leader. And we simply don't know who's going to be Mr. Berlusconi's opponent and what they plan to do if they win. This is disgraceful.

I think Berlusconi is at his weakest now, and they should be a shoo-in.

FP: So even if Berlusconi's out of political power, he has managed to have a profound effect on Italian politics, culture, and media. How long do you think this impact will be felt?

BS: We'll go through a couple of difficult years, I think. Italy, in terms of media, and loyalty, and fair play is wounded. But never forget that Italy is the country of opera. I don't like Mr. Berlusconi's arias, but he's the tenor. In an opera, the audience cheers for the tenor until the very moment they boo him offstage.



'There's a Huge Amount of Anger'

Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer let fly on Occupy Wall Street, why the GOP's cynical economic strategy is designed to make things worse, and whether China wants to ride to the rescue.

With protesters occupying Wall Street and European voters deciding on whether to support the failing peripheral states, Foreign Policy went back to its two favorite economic and political prognosticators -- Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer -- for another spirited debate on what the coming months hold.

The news isn't good. "There's a huge amount of anger," says Roubini, better known as Dr. Doom for having predicted the 2007-2008 financial crisis. He sees another recession coming; the only question being "whether it's going to be a plain-vanilla recession or one as severe as the last."

So, can Barack Obama do anything to stem the tide? Not in an election cycle, says Bremmer -- head of the Eurasia Group political-risk analysis firm and moderator of FP's The Call blog -- and we should be worried about political contagion across the Atlantic, too.

But surely the fiscally sound, sensible Germans won't let Europe fall apart, right? Roubini's answer is even more ominous: "Things that should not occur sometimes do occur -- even if they lead to disaster."

Could China rescue the eurozone? Don't bet on the Chinese "white knight," says Bremmer; they're a lot more interested in watching Greece crash and then "bottom feeding."

Excerpts follow.

Foreign Policy: What do you think of the Occupy Wall Street protests? Have you been down to see them?

Nouriel Roubini: I stopped by. My view of it is that it is a symptom of the economic malaise that we're facing not just in the United States, but all over the world. It started with the Arab Spring, and of course, poverty, unemployment, corruption, inequality eventually leads to people becoming restless. But now, you have middle-class people in Israel saying we cannot afford homes; you have middle-class students in Chile saying we don't have education; you have riots in London; people smashing Mercedes and BMWs of fat cats in Berlin and Frankfurt; you have an anti-corruption movement in India. It takes a lot of different manifestations, but we live in a world with a lot of economic insecurity, of worries about the future, of inequality, poverty, of concerns about jobs. And [Occupy Wall Street] is the manifestation in the U.S.

In 2009, [President Barack] Obama told the bankers, "I'm the only one who's standing between you and the pitchforks." The bankers got the bailouts; they were supposed to extend credit, extend mortgages. They did pretty much nothing, and they went back to the same actions as before: making money through trading. At this point, I think people are fed up with it. Rightly or wrongly, there's a huge amount of anger.

FP: Ian, do you think the so-called 1 percent feels any pressure to change its practices?

Ian Bremmer: Less than you think. It's very clear that there is rising animosity toward the financial sector. It's true in the United States and in Europe, as well. And I do think these economic protests have legs, even though they're very poorly organized and it's not entirely clear what they are or what the agenda is. And I say that because we're in an election year and there are a lot of wealthy, vested interests that are both on the Democratic and the Republican side that will try to throw money at these guys and tap into some of that anger. We'll see where it goes.

Having said that, the United States is not Egypt. It's not as if you have unemployment in the U.S. and as a consequence people starve. You still have a lot of political apathy in the United States. You also have a country -- frankly, much like Saudi Arabia -- where a lot of immigrants come in and take jobs that the average American, even an unemployed American, wouldn't necessarily want. 9.1 percent unemployment is very, very high, and it's an outrage in this country to have that level of sustained unemployment. Yet it appears to be something that Washington is prepared to tolerate. We don't see an urgency in Washington to truly address the issue, certainly nothing like the urgency you see in Europe today.

So I don't think the 1 percent is coming under the kind of pressure that would force them to take a different position.

NR: I would make the point that, however, while I agree with what Ian says, that the "official" unemployment rate is 9.1 percent -- but the one that includes discouraged workers who have left the labor force or partially unemployment has gone from 16.2 percent to 16.5 percent. And if you add to it the millions of people that you have in jail in the U.S. -- which is four times the amount of any civilized country as a share of population -- than unemployment is probably closer to 20 percent. And that's just among the average population. For minorities, the youth, or unskilled people that don't have a high school degree, the number is closer to 30 percent. It's a stressful situation.

The U.S. might not be Europe, but the U.S. is not used to having an unemployment rate so high -- and staying so high. Usually, when you get a recession the monetary and fiscal stimulus leads to a recovery of jobs in short order. But this is becoming chronic and longer term. Either the United States becomes like Europe -- and we've already extended unemployment benefits three or four times over -- or otherwise you have a much bigger social welfare state and safety net. Or you'll have people rioting in the streets. We have to do something either way. Either we'll have a fiscal problem or a social problem.

FP: What can the Obama administration do at this point? And is Washington ignoring the situation in Europe? Are there any levers the administration can pull to stop a European contagion coming back across the Atlantic?

IB: I wouldn't say the United States is ignoring Europe; we saw that with Timothy Geithner's trip over to Poland a couple weeks ago. But the willingness of the Europeans to listen to U.S. advice (however well-intentioned) in this environment, especially given the problems of America dealing with its own economy ... it's not quite as problematic as telling the Chinese what to do ... but it's not that far off. The ability of the Americans to have a significant impact at the strategic-thought level and at the policy-influence level on Europe is very, very low.

The willingness of the United States to have an impact -- outside the IMF where the impact is significant with Europe -- in terms of Americans reaching into their pockets, that's obviously a political non-starter, given both the U.S. economic situation domestically as well as the political environment around elections. We are in election cycle. Even when you're not in the doldrums with huge amounts of political polarization, it's always hard to get anything passed in this environment. It's even more so. But that does not mean that gridlock is the name of the game. Clearly, when crises exist in the United States -- either true crises like the Lehman bankruptcy, or manufactured, like the debt-limit issue or the two averted government shutdowns and the $1.3 trillion supercommittee -- Congress has actually shown that it can act at the last moment. It's not efficient, it's not the optimal way to run policy, but it's not gridlock.

NR: If the Obama "jobs plan" is not passed, we'll have a fiscal drag on the United States next year of something like $350 billion because of the expiration of the payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits, infrastructure spending, you name it. So what the Obama plan does is to avoid a 2 percent of GDP fiscal drag and provide a fiscal stimulus at a time when state and local governments are retrenching. So the net of it will be closer to zero, even if it were to be implemented. My view of it is that the Republicans are not going to let it pass, or only let pass a small fraction. They're going to wrap themselves around the fiscal austerity excuse or that he wants to pay for it by taxing the wealthy, and maybe only half of it is going to be passed -- maybe some unemployment benefits or pieces of the payroll tax. But that implies that you'll have a nasty fiscal drag of about 1 percent of GDP, at a time when growth is barely positive -- which will tip us into negative growth.

I think this is a political calculus on the part of the Republicans. They've taken a Leninist approach, you know, of the worse is the better. This is an election year. If the economy gets worse and they don't pass, this plan then the chance that Obama gets reelected is smaller. They think he'll be a one-term president. If so, they'll inherit not just a nasty recession, but something probably worse. But I think it's a political calculus they're playing -- even if it's going to hurt the economy.

FP: Ian, you think the Republicans' economic plans are intentionally cynical?

IB: Not across the board, no, but I think the closer we get to November of next year, the more so they're going to be. I think that Obama made a choice that he was going to go further down the taxation and more maximalist route early on. The Republicans decided that they were going to respond even more than in kind. And I think Obama came back after the midterm elections, after taking a drubbing, and said, "I'm going to play centrist with you." Some of the Republicans didn't buy it, but more of them sensed weakness, and I think that's how they're playing it.

With the enormous anti-Washington sentiment right now, it's much easier to complain. The election is in the absolute doldrums. It almost doesn't matter which candidate the Republicans put up; the election is about Obama. Now, Obama is an extraordinary candidate, and he's going to have a lot of money. I wouldn't bet against him at this point in the actual elections, but clearly that's the Republican strategy. And I think the Republican economic plans are part and parcel of that strategy.

FP: Nouriel, are we already in a second recession?

NR: We're not yet there, but my own analysis suggests that the U.S., the eurozone, and the U.K. are going to end up in a contraction -- whether you call it a double dip or a continuation of the first dip is a just semantics -- by Q4 or Q1, we're going to be there. Certainly, we're there already in terms of economic contraction in the peripheral of the eurozone -- and soon the core will be in an economic contraction. We're almost there in the United Kingdom. The U.S. data are slightly more mixed, but in my view, they're going to lead us to this economic contraction.

The question, in my view, is not whether we're going to have a double dip, but whether it's going to be a plain-vanilla recession or one as severe as the last with the financial crisis. The answer to that question depends on whether things in the eurozone periphery -- whether the defaults or exits of the member states -- become disorderly or not. If that were to happen, it's going to be Lehman all over again, maybe Lehman to the power of two....

But what about this $2 trillion bazooka that Europe needs? Even if you believe that the 440 billion euros of the European Financial Stability Facility is not sufficient, because half of it is already committed to Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and the banks. So what's left for Italy and Spain? It's only 200 billion euros, but you have to potentially backstop 3 trillion euros of their debt.

Now, people say when push comes to shove, Germany's going to do the right thing because the alternatives are the destruction of the eurozone or the collapse of Germany as another Lehman.... But you have timing constraints, political constraints, legal and constitutional constraints, and credit risk. And the average German -- as opposed to the average politician -- is going to say enough is enough.

Things that should not occur sometimes do occur -- even if they lead to disaster ... like with crises, like with wars. So saying it cannot occur just because the alternative is too bad to fathom, I think, is a bit too easy to say.

FP: Ian, should we be concerned that Germany or the Northern European economies don't have the political will or economic foundation to pull the rest of Europe out of this crisis?

IB: I think there's the question of where the funding is going to come from and whether they can act fast enough to handle market downturn -- which can move faster than politics. And that is an open question and a real risk, along with the liquidity of banks in Europe. But that's very different than politics. We talk a lot about economic contagion but not enough about political contagion.

If you were to create a mechanism where, say, Greece were to leave the eurozone, that mechanism would be incredibly difficult to set up; it would also require approvals across all the European parliaments and ultimately, if it passed, would also create a mechanism for other countries. And there's not a lot of interest in that. It's true that among the Germans and the Northern Europeans there's a lot of animus; they're saying, "Why are we being called upon to pay for these guys"? But not a lot of people are willing to talk to them about how much they've benefited from having a eurozone.

But we should never underestimate the ability of European institutions to make policy, despite domestic political constraints. These institutions are strong, and these constituencies have been ridden roughshod over before. If it were up to individual constituencies, Turkey would never have been brought in the EU as a candidate member. Similarly, the Lisbon Treaty never would have been signed. You wouldn't have spiraling EU institutional budgets while austerity is being forced on peripheral institutions, and for that matter, you wouldn't have had a Greek bailout.

FP: Could the Chinese come in with a massive injection of capital into the eurozone?

IB: Everyone's been asking them that. But over the last few months, the Chinese have been the Chris Christie of the European bailout. They keep saying they're extremely interested, but few people -- myself included -- think they're going to make a major, swoop-in huge purchase.... Even though it's an authoritarian state, you still need consensus to make those decisions. I think the Chinese are much more interested in, after a Greek default, coming in and bottom feeding and buying up all sorts of assets. I wouldn't say they won't play any role in backstopping the euro, but I wouldn't count on them being the white knight riding in to save the day. China's disappointed us on many, many fronts in terms of global leadership -- in part because of lack of maturity and because they're still a developing state. Europe is not the place where China will suddenly emerge, playing the role that the United States used to play.

NR: Every time there is a European country getting in trouble -- Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy -- there's a noise about China coming in to buy their bonds. The first observation I'd make is that in the past when Mexico and Korea were in trouble, they would go and knock at the door of the United States. But right now the U.S. doesn't have the fiscal resources or the political will to backstop the eurozone, so it's already a sign of the changed times. So now they go to China.