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Berlusconi the statesman, not the playboy

July 10, 2009

By Guy Dinmore and George Parker in L’Aquila, July 10, 2009

From scandal-plagued playboy to international statesman, Silvio Berlusconi’s gamble to host the G8 summit in the quake-torn town of L’Aquila has silenced his critics and soothed his allies, at least for the moment.

For the 72-year-old billionaire prime minister, the three-day summit of 40 heads of government and international organisations concluding yesterday was as much a success for what did not happen.

Aides were visibly relieved that none of their worst fears materialised — no aftershocks from the April 6 quake disturbed proceedings; no prosecutors announced investigations into well publicised allegations that prostitutes were procured last year for his lavish parties; and no reporter, Italian or otherwise, had the temerity to ask Mr Berlusconi about his sleeping habits.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor well accustomed to Mr Berlusconi’s pranks — he once played peek-a-boo from behind a pillar — greeted him with a kiss. Gordon Brown gave a big hug and Barack Obama was gracious in his praise for the organisation.

By playing up the Spartan nature of the accommodation in the finance ministry police college, expectations were lowered and no one complained. The people of L’Aquila — over 60,000 have lost their homes and 22,000 are in tents — were flattered to be the centre of world attention.

European diplomats did moan a bit that Mr Berlusconi had been “incredibly late” for some meetings amid his hectic schedule, leaving the punctilious German chancellor “steaming” over poor time-keeping. But it was Mr Obama who kept the group photo waiting.

“Given the fact that the summit was moved to L’Aquila from Sardinia and the difficult circumstances, it has actually been a reasonably well-organised summit,” said one diplomat. “The accommodation and the food were modest and that was exactly the right thing.”

After weeks of salacious reports (all denied by Mr Berlusconi) about his friendship with an 18-year-old would-be model — the last straw for his wife who is asking for  divorce — and taccounts by call-girls of party and bedroom antics, the media mogul’s outlets were exultant.

An editorialist in Il Giornale, owned by Mr Berlusconi’s brother, crowed that the foreign press had not turned their gutter reporting into questions at press conferences. Instead of pictures of “lesbians and orgies”, it noted that front pages had world leaders joining him on tours of quake-ruined L’Aquila.

“The summit results are extremely positive. I have received compliments from all participants and some have told me it has been the best G8 they joined,” the prime minister said after summiteers announced the headline catching figure of $20bn pledged for food security.

Mr Berlusconi has demonstrated that his government is up to the job in organisation and hospitality. But senior diplomats say they remain concerned, on security grounds, about trusting a head of government who allegedly has entertained call girls, some reported to be eastern European. Mr Berlusconi himself admitted that he believed one woman, whom he said he did not know was an escort, had been paid to set him up.

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