The G-8 in l’Aquila: Farce or Success?

The Italians can be remarkably thin-skinned when it comes to foreign coverage of their country and leaders. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been battling the international media for years. Most recently, he accused the London Times of attempted character assassination with its stories about his alleged gallivanting with young girls.

But it goes further back than Berlusconi. In the late 1970s, the Red Brigades terrorized the country, corruption was widespread, and questions were raised whether Italy was indeed governable. The Economist magazine published a story with the cover headline, “Italy in Agony.” Italians were enraged: they read it as Italy is dying. In their language, a person in agonia, means that a person is close to death.

On Tuesday, a report in the Guardian that the Italians had botched the organization of the annual summit of the industrial nations, the G-8, starting July 8, drew a sharp response from Foreign Minister Franco Frattini who called the story “a joke.” According to the Guardian, other summit nations believed that Italy should be dropped from the G-8 “club.” The British newspaper’s headline – “Calls grow within the G8 to expel Italy as summit plans descend into chaos” — says it all.

The Guardian further quotes an unidentified G-8 official as saying that Italian organization of the summit had been “just awful. There have been no processes and no planning.” Frattini denied The Guardian’s claim that the United States has had to step in to finish the job.

The two-day summit will be held in l’Aquila, devastated on April 6 by a massive earthquake. But earth tremors of around 3.0 on the Richter scale were still felt Sunday and into Monday. As a result, the Italian government has set up a mirror venue in Rome to the police academy location in l’Aquila. If the earth tremors reach between 4.0-4.5 the summit will move to a police barracks in the Italian capital.

There are other signs of nervousness about the outcome of the summit. The New York Times said Tuesday that whether the G-8 turned out to be “a comedy, tragedy or a serious undertaking” depended on whether Berlusconi could keep his irrepressible weakness for histrionics under control, and whether further revelations on his supposed relationship with young women surfaced to undermine him further. Following the Italian prime minister’s visit to Washington recently, some Italian journalists told their American colleagues that Berlusconi had been tactfully warned by the White House not to turn the summit into a circus.

The other disruption, which would scarcely be comical, is the possible eruption of protest violence. An alliance of anti-global and environmental groups is expected to stage demonstrations in nearby towns even though a number of leading activists have been detained for the duration of the summit. L’Aqila’s homeless, who are spread all over the area in tent cities, are also likely to demonstrate to attract world attention to their plight.