To the 23 official languages of the European Union can be added a 24th – Silviospeak.
Yes, Berlusconi is back and once again turning heads and headlines across Europe.
The incoming Italian premier has yet to form a government but has already irked Brussels on two issues: his defence of lossmaking airline Alitalia and the nomination of a Italy’s European commissioner.
The billionaire businessman helped wreck talks to sell Alitalia to Air France/KLM by holding out the prospect of an Italian takeover. Now, if local businessmen do not stump up the cash, he could just nationalise it, he said on Tuesday.
He invented a new word – “zignare” – to describe the hectoring of the Commission, which is anxious to ensure that the airline does not receive any more government subsidies, disadvantaging its competitors.
“If they continue hectoring, we could take a decision in which Alitalia could be bought by the state – by the state railway,” Berlusconi told a news conference. “It’s a threat, not a decision.” Some suspect it may also be a joke since the railway lacks the resources to take on the airline.
Jacques Barrot, the EU transport commissioner, has expressed doubts over whether an emergency 300m government loan complied with state aid rules. The Commission on Tuesday said that nationalisation would not pose a problem as long as the state did not pay above market rates for the 50.1 per cent of Alitalia it did not own. Given the lack of private buyers a market rate could be difficult to gauge.
Italy gave Jose Manuel Barroso, Commission president, a further headache on Tuesday when Franco Frattini, its commissioner, asked for his leave of absence to be extended until May 15. He took time off to campaign with Berlusconi and is expected to become Rome’s foreign minister.
Barroso last week said that if he resigned Italy would lose the sensitive justice and home affairs post, which temporary fill-in Barrot would retain. The new Italian would take Barrot’s transport portfolio. Rocco Buttiglione, Berlusconi’s last pick, (cd xref to beeb or our story) had to withdraw in 2004 after offending the European parliament with remarks about homosexuality and the role of women.
Patience with Italy is strained in Brussels. After his time spent with Berlusconi, it might be wise for Frattini not to return.
© The Financial Times Ltd 2015 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.