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When a call matters more than protocol

Posted on 5 April 2009 | 11:04am

More than once, I had a mobile phone suddenly tossed my way as Tony Blair realised the car was about to arrive.

Usually it was obvious when the journey was coming to an end and he could sign off in traditional polite fashion. But sometimes, we would just arrive, the car would stop suddenly, and a door would open to reveal a red carpet and an outstretched hand. Then TB would say ‘gotta go’, the mobile would come flying my way and I would have to explain to whichever President, Prime Minister, Cabinet member, Downing Street staffer or family member he was speaking to.

I thought of those moments as I watched Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, fresh from his apparent annoying of the Queen with his overloud greetings to Barack Obama at the Buck House G20 photocall, get out of his car at the Nato Summit, and shoo away Chancellor Merkel of Germany who was waiting to greet him.

Highly intelligent people devote large amounts of diplomatic and logistical energy working out arrivals at summits. Having been chairman of a few in his time, Berlusconi knows that as well as anyone.

He must also have known how important to the summit was the moment when Merkel led other leaders across a footbridge on the Rhine to meet President Sarkozy, a neat way of marking the 60th anniversary of Nato. And what was Silvio doing as this symbolic moment unfolded? Wandering around daffodils still chatting on his mobile phone.

The Italians are well used to Berlusconi drawing attention to himself in ways not always planned or welcome, and have a habit of shrugging their shoulders and saying life’s too short to complain. But surely this was going to require a good explanation.

As it happens, if we can take it at face value, he did have a good explanation. According to the Italians, he was trying to persuade the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, to shift from his stated position of vetoing the appointment of Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen as Nato General-Secretary because of the Dane’s handling (or lack of it according to the Turks) of the row over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

If this had been Gordon Brown (unlikely I know, I think he would have tossed the phone as TB used to) there would now be a clamour to prove via phone bills that at that very moment, the two men were talking. Lip-readers would be hired in the hope of establishing that far from saying ‘… but Tayyip, stick to this and your entry to the EU hasn’t a chance,’ he was actually saying ‘… and they all lived happily ever after’ as he read a bedtime story down the phone to his sons.

Berlusconi somehow gets away with it and, to be fair, it that was indeed the call that swung Erdogan (I noticed the Americans making similar claims for President Obama) it was more important than keeping Merkel waiting and annoying the protocol department of the German foreign ministry.

It must help of course to own so much of the Italian media. There seemed to be not even a hint of irony when he told them after the slap on the wrist from the Queen, and the subsequent furore at home, that he would no longer talk to the Italian media. ‘I’m working for Italy while you’re working against it,’ he said.

He couldn’t shut down his own TV stations. Could he?

  • Rob

    He doesn’t need to shut down his own media – they are with him all the way. He did worse, though, than saying that he wouldn’t talk to them – he threatened to command the people into not watching certain channels. That’s the state his grossly overblown ego is in at the moment.
    Pier Ferdinando Casini, leader of the UDC, who used to be in a coalition with Berlusc’, said that for the premier only the people count. The rest – Parliament, opposition, judges, the press – are just obstacles between him and his devotees. Already he tried to abolish the vote in Parliament, saying that just the fraction leaders could do that. Couple that with his ideal of a two party system… and kiss democracy goodbye.

    He is becoming very much like a dictator.

    Greetings from Southern Italy.

  • Alan Macrae

    It would have been a disaster for Turkey if they had blocked the Dane. It would have shown how little they believe in freedom of expression. So maybe Berlusconi did them a favour

  • Alina Palimaru

    I must admit it was a relief to hear he was actually taking care of serious business. For a moment there, I thought he was producing a phone version of the now infamous “Nunzia e Gabri” note, which he wrote to tell two young female members of Parliament that “you look very good sitting there together. Thanks for staying here, but it’s not necessary. If you have some romantic appointment at lunchtime, I authorise you to leave! Many kisses to both of you!!!” What a schmuck!

    I’ll leave it to history to ascertain if his dismissal of Mrs. Merkel was worth it or consequential.

    AC, thanks for the insight about your handling of TB’s calls.

  • terry evans

    I know it’s not relevant in this case, but would if have brushed off President Obama. Whatever the reasons and results this still would feel embarrassing for Chancellor Merkel to be dismissed in such a manner. It’s bad form and bad manners.

  • Alessadra Frosoni

    Mr Campbell,
    just a quick note to your savy blog about Berlusconi…..
    You wrote: “The Italians are well used to Berlusconi drawing attention to himself in ways not always planned or welcome, and have a habit of shrugging their shoulders and saying life’s too short to complain…”
    Being an Italan living in London, I can assure that there are millions of us who don’t shrug our shoulders and are highly embarassed for Berlusconi’s behaviours (if not policy) and sick and tired of being mentioned only for his unlikely “funny” moves.
    Once again I can only apologise, and trying to tell the world that a good part of Italians and Italy are indeed different…indeed!!!!