Berlusconi ‘serene’ ahead of G8 summit

“Everything is ready. I feel completely serene.”

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s three-time prime minister and billionaire media mogul, is confident in the success of the G8 summit he is hosting this week in the quake-ravaged city of L’Aquila.

For Berlusconi, 72, it will be the third G8 summit he has chaired, following Naples in 1994 and Genoa eight years ago. No other leader of the rich countries’ club has such a distinction and this summit will be the biggest to date, bringing together a total of 39 heads of government and international institutions.

The summit venue is the college compound of the Finance Ministry police, a cross between a military barracks and university campus about two km outside L’Aquila which was devastated by an earthquake on April 6. Nearly 300 people in the city and surrounding villages were killed and about 60,000 are still homeless, more than 22,000 living in government-provided tents.

The three-day summit starts on Wednesday but world leaders have already started arriving in Rome. China’s Hu Jintao attended a business conference on Monday where 38 agreements reported to total $2bn were signed between Italian and Chinese companies, including car-maker Fiat and Generali, Italy’s insurance giant breaking into the Chinese pensions market.

Whether everything is really ready in L’Aquila is not clear. The media centre for some 3,500 reporters was to open on Monday but has been put back a day. But sidewalks have been covered in green carpeting and approach roads resurfaced. A blanket security presence will keep away any disgruntled tent people or anti-global protesters.

Almost daily aftershocks have added to the logistics nightmare of shifting the venue to L’Aquila from the original site at La Maddalena, a small island off Sardinia that had presented its own serious accommodation problems.

Italian media report that under Plan B, world leaders could be evacuated and flown to Rome in the event of another major tremor measuring more than 4.0 on the Richter scale, but only if the summit complex showed signs of damage. The April 6 quake measured 6.3. A tremor of 4.1 shook the area last Friday, sending people back out into the streets.

“There is no risk,” Mr Berlusconi told Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by his brother.  “Even if there was another shock, the guests would be completely safe.”

Mr Berlusconi is in serious need of a smooth and successful summit seen to produce concrete results. Communiques on climate change and food security could yield tangible progress. Italy is spearheading an effort, backed by Germany, that is intended to lead to a systematic working out of “global standards” for international business and finance. Ethics has become a buzz-word.

Iran could also come in for a tough verbal lashing although Mr Berlusconi has back-tracked since he earlier indicated he expected sanctions to be imposed, even though the G8 is not the right forum for such decisions.

At home and abroad, the prime minister’s standing has been seriously damaged by a series of scandals surrounding his private life that began when his wife, Veronica Lario, accused him of “frequenting minors” over his unclear relationship with an 18-year-old would-be model. Since then it has emerged that prosecutors are investigating whether a businessman in Bari suspected of corruption also procured prostitutes for the prime minister. Several women have gone public with their salacious tales.

Mr Berlusconi calls it all garbage and lies concocted by the left-wing “walking corpse” opposition. Despite repeated claims that he is completely unmoved by the media furore, his office has threatened to sue foreign newspapers, specifically those belonging to the Murdoch group, if they published photographs of his private parties.

Known for his attention to logistical detail, Mr Berlusconi has overseen preparations in L’Aquila led by Guido Bertolaso, the government’s Mr Fix-it who heads the civil protection agency which is also in charge of earthquake relief.

A basketball hoop has been specially installed for Barack Obama, US president, outside his accommodation block numbered P1.

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