The intervening centuries have confirmed this perceptive, if politically incorrect, assessment and it is more than interesting to speculate on how Congreve might describe the near-hysterical but predictable reaction of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi to the decision by that country’s highest court to uphold his prison sentence for tax fraud.
Despite the ruling, Berlusconi, like so many minor tyrants, indulged prima donnas or demagogues before him, maintains his innocence, raging that his freedoms and integrity have been dishonestly undermined. These refutations, however, are as credible as his hair colour.
In an emotional nine-minute video, Berlusconi mixed outrage, bombast and fantasy to denounce the decision, saying it was “based on nothing and ... deprives me of my freedom and political rights”.
Berlusconi, 76, is a billionaire, a courtroom veteran, and is fighting a conviction for paying for sex with a minor — Karima el-Mahroug, aka Ruby the Heartstealer — in the infamous bunga-bunga case that was such a distraction during his final months in office in 2011.
There may be a certain entertainment value in watching this still powerful, vain old man scoff at the kind of standards that define someone fit to lead a country, but for Italians, and everyone dependent on a stable euro, his buffoonery represents a real and present threat to EU and specifically eurozone confidence, if not stability.
The ruling has once again threatened the stability of the Italian government and its capacity to deliver the kind of reforms, especially cuts to public spending and the promised privatisation of some state-owned businesses, needed to avert national bankruptcy.
Three months ago, centre-left prime minister Enrico Letta took office and built an uneasy alliance with Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party (PDL). This coalition, like our own, is divided over tax and economic policy, but it presides over the third-largest economy in the eurozone. It is stating the obvious to point out that a calm, effective and unified coalition is needed to overcome Italy’s and the eurozone’s challenges. Already, the prospect of delivering significant reforms, including a divisive property tax opposed by Berlusconi, to rejuvenate Italy’s flat-lining economy and reduce its massive debt, seems in jeopardy.
This is more than unfortunate, as last year’s statement from European Central Bank president Mario Draghi that the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, seems to have had the desired impact. The number of investors who think a country will leave the eurozone soon has dropped by two thirds in the year since that promise was made. In the context of the pessimism that prevailed at the darkest moments of the euro crisis, that is considerable progress.
Berlusconi’s legacy may not inspire Europeans not yet born, but if his continued involvement in public affairs threatens Italy’s capacity to play its part in eurozone recovery, then he has one last chance to redeem himself. If he really cares for Italy or Europe he should quit public life, thereby facilitating the stability his presence prevents; stability being so very essential at this time.