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Sun, sea and luxury await world leaders

April 4, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

published on the FT on April 4 2009

From London’s regenerated Docklands to the Emerald Coast. G20 leaders can start packing their tuxedos and snorkels for their next and rather more glamorous summit when they will soon be hosted on a luxury cruise liner and possibly entertained at the private villa of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s billionaire prime minister.

The logistics are a nightmare – “like holding a mini-Olympics” as one senior official described the three-day summit in July, involving at least 30,000 people on and around the islet of Maddalena, just off northern Sardinia.

After the riots in London – and with memories of the anti-global protests in Genoa in 2001 when an Italian policeman shot dead a demonstrator – security forces may be increased from 16,000 to 20,000, twice as many as deployed in London.

Submarines, mine sweepers and a no-fly zone will also ensure blanket security.

Although strictly speaking it is a Group of Eight summit, additions mean that of the leaders who met this week in London only Argentina, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will not be present in Sardinia. There will also be Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak – personally invited by Mr Berlusconi – plus Colonel Muammer Gaddafi of Libya as head of the African Union, who will as usual bring his own tent.

A conference centre and two hotels are being built out of an old arsenal and former naval base. “We are starting from scratch,” the senior official said. Organisers would have gladly chosen an easier venue except that it was already selected by the previous centre-left government.

Fortunately another Italian billionaire, Gianluigi Aponte, owner of MSC cruise lines, has offered for free Europe’s biggest luxury liner, La Fantasia, for about 1,300 VIPs. As long as three football pitches it will dock at the nearby island of Santo Stefano.

“You will be pampered like a star…you can close your eyes and escape” with cozy corners for those “seductive yet tender moments”, says an MSC promotional video.

La Fantasia also boasts a 1,700-seat theatre, 156 illuminated musical fountains and – for those who have not already frittered away the  world’s fortunes – a casino.

President Barack Obama, whose aides insist will stay on terra firma, will be spared an uncomfortable reminder of the US car industry in the shape of a cut-off Cadillac that pops through the faux-brick bulkhead of La Fantasia’s Tex-Mex café.

Guido Bertolaso, the government’s Mr Fixit in charge of logistics, is looking for more ships to host some of the expected 4,500 reporters to be sequestered in Olbia, a distant 50 km from Maddalena. It is not clear if any will get access to the summit venue.

Diplomats on a recent reconnoitre were pleasantly surprised and agreed with Mr Bertolaso’s statements that plans are on track. They were also enchanted by the coastline and crystal-clear waters.

Mr Berlusconi is keen to host at least one dinner at his Villa Certosa, about 30 km from Maddalena. One official ruled this out. Diplomats said it remained a possibility.

More than the logistics, some diplomats said their biggest worry was of “grandstanding” by Mr Berlusconi, renowned for his off-beat jokes and pranks.

In London, a beaming, thumbs-up Mr Berlusconi inserted himself between Mr Obama and Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev for the group photo, demonstrating again his ambition to be their interlocutor.

Italians have also been variously amused and appalled by footage that captured Mr Berlusconi yelling out “Mister Obama!” at the end of the Buckingham Palace photo-op, prompting a disturbed Queen Elizabeth to turn round and ask: “Why does he have to shout?”

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