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Berlusconi gambles on moving G8 talks to quake zone

By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) – Genius or folly? By suddenly moving the annual G8 summit from an idyllic Mediterranean island to a landscape blighted by an earthquake, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is hoping to reap huge political gains.

To the surprise of even some ministers, Berlusconi announced on Thursday that July’s meeting of the leaders of the Group of Eight industrial powers will move to L’Aquila, the medieval city devastated by Italy’s worst natural disaster in three decades.

“This has left the opposition shell-shocked,” said Massimo Franco, a commentator for Italy’s leading mainstream daily, the Corriere della Sera. “They don’t know whether to applaud or pour cold water on it.”

“My guess is that his (Berlusconi’s) approval rating will soar if he manages to pull off the G8 proposal,” said James Walston, political science professor at the American University of Rome.

“He reacts well to emergencies and he adores being in the limelight … I guess it’s both genius and folly. With someone like Berlusconi, the two sometimes go together very well.”

Berlusconi’s move seemed to solve several problems:

- The original venue, the island of La Maddalena, was turning into a logistics and security nightmare, with difficulties in finding cruise ships to house delegates and ferries to shuttle media and police forces.

- By moving the venue, Italy will save some 220 million euros ($290 million) that it could divert to reconstruction.

- The austere backdrop might send a positive signal at a time of global recession, and wrongfoot protesters who say such meetings neglect the needy.

“He is calling everyone’s bluff. He is calling the bluff of the other seven G8 members, the bluff of the opposition, the bluff of the protesters,” said Walston.


The other members of the G8 — the United States, Britain, Japan, Canada, Germany, France and Russia — have not yet formally responded to the proposal, but a top Italian official said their immediate reaction had been positive.

“Our partners have confidence in us and it is well-placed,” Giampiero Massolo, the general secretary of the Foreign Ministry who has a key role in preparing the summit, told Reuters.

Even if the G8 leaders do say ‘no’, Berlusconi will be able to say that he tried.

Some of Berlusconi’s harshest critics have had to swallow their pride. “It is a sign of attention toward populations that have been sorely tried,” said Guglielmo Epifani, leader of Italy’s largest labor union.

The April 6 earthquake in the central region of Abruzzo killed 296 people, flattened entire quarters of some towns and made some 63,000 people homeless.

But other buildings have been left intact, particularly a huge police academy compound that Berlusconi has been using as his headquarters in the area, and which could host the summit.

Berlusconi called the compound a vast, protected “fortress” where the leaders could stay in 25 suites normally reserved for top police officials, while journalists would stay in Rome.

Berlusconi said the new venue had no security problems, while La Maddalena had not been able to find a way to accommodate the large ship that was due to house the leaders.

“It would have been an extremely luxurious base, certainly not in keeping with the times the world is going through, and some leaders had expressed concern because the ship would not have represented an element of security and instead could have heightened danger,” the Ansa news agency quoted him as saying.

The quake-hit area is only some 70 miles from Rome, which had led to speculation that the leaders could alternatively sleep in the comfort and security of their embassies and be shuttled quickly by helicopter to the L’Aquila area.

Opinion polls show approval ratings for Berlusconi and his center-right government of above 50 percent, and many applaud the hands-on way he has dealt with the earthquake.

He has gone to the area nearly every other day, and on Thursday bussed his whole cabinet there for a meeting.

(Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Source: http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSTRE53N73N20090424?sp=true