Europe Feels Tremors from Berlusconi’s Earthquake Diplomacy

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s two-hour White House session last week raised eyebrows in the capitals of Europe. There is always a thinly veiled race among Europe’s leaders to be the first in Washington when a new president takes over. Although Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown was already the first to visit President Barack Obama’s White House, the Italian made it there ahead of the two leaders who share the heavy lifting in Europe: French President Nicolas Sarokozy, who has been fishing for months for such a meeting with Obama in the U.S. capital, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is actually due at the White House Friday.

Of course, both Sarkozy and Merkel have had one-on-one meetings with Obama on the other side of the Atlantic, but the Washington visit has a political and symbolic significance of its own. The leaders’ session in the Oval Office is usually buttressed by a broad schedule of contacts on the Hill and close encounters with the American media and the foreign-policy community.

Berlusconi was originally scripted to have 45 minutes with Obama, but as Berlusconi’s aides trumpeted later, his time with the president ran more than twice that. Beset by a scandal involving his reported relationship with an 18-year-old model and his wife’s public demand for a divorce, Berlusconi needs all the boost to his international prestige that he can get.

Italian officials in Rome said the visit was to discuss the upcoming G-8 heads-of-state summit, to be held — of all places — in l’Aquila, the town in central Italy virtually destroyed by earth tremors on April 6. Berlusconi had also earned points with the Obama administration by accepting three Guantanamo detainees, in contrast to European reluctance to take more than one — or, in the case of Germany, none at all.

Berlusconi has also said Italy will send more forces, mainly police, to Afghanistan to reinforce security for the August presidential elections. Still, Italian journalists said this did not stop senior administration officials from urging Berlusconi to keep his legendary exuberance under control and maintain decorum at the summit. In London in April, he popped up making a V-sign between Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev when the two were posing for the cameras.

In l’Aquila, Obama and other heads of state and government will spend July 8 and 9 in a training school for non-commissioned officers of the Guardia di Finanza, Italy’s Finance Police. The building doubles as the Bank of Italy’s gold-reserve vaults. All around are tent cities for the 45,000 homeless, and the debris of what was once a historic town in the Abruzzo mountains.

Not yet announced by the White House is Obama’s appointment on July 10 with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican.