Berlusconi steps back into political ring

Silvio Berlusconi delivers a speech on stage during a campaign rally in Milan on Sunday, ahead of the Italian general elections next week. (AFP)
Updated 25 February 2018
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Berlusconi steps back into political ring

ROME: Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media mogul who dominated Italian politics for nearly two decades, has stepped back into the ring at the age of 81, defying those who dared to believe he had thrown in the towel.
Despite sex scandals, serial gaffes and legal woes, the flamboyant tycoon has made an astonishing return from political oblivion to head his center-right Forza Italia (Go Italy) party, which as part of a rightwing coalition is leading the race for the March 4 vote, according to opinion polls.
“Berlusconi has 12 or 13 lives, he’s like a cat squared,” said former premier Matteo Renzi, who is himself trying to win back the top spot next weekend.
Although barred from public office owing to a tax fraud conviction, Berlusconi is hoping to position himself as kingmaker in the next government if his coalition wins a majority in parliament.
While he has avoided the big campaign rallies in the run-up to the vote, he is a constant figure on television and radio stations and in newspapers, a number of which he owns through his Fininvest empire.
The one-time cruise ship crooner who has served as prime minister three times and once owned AC Milan football club, has had a tumultuous love affair with Italian politics, clinching his first election victory in 1994.
With his oiled-back hair and winning smile, he has ruled Italy for more than nine years in total.
He became renowned around the world for his buffoonish gaffes, friendships with the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, and a colorful private life epitomized by his notorious “bunga bunga” sex parties.
Today, his smile is noticeably a little frozen, the facelifts and make-up laid on “as thick as the carpet,” according to an editorial from La Repubblica newspaper, have left the veteran leader somewhat transformed.
But his sense of humor is still in tact. “I’m like a good wine, with age, I only improve, now I’m perfect,” he tweeted recently.
Berlusconi was born in 1936 in Milan to a bank employee father and a housewife mother who always staunchly defended her son’s virtues.
The young Berlusconi was a born entertainer.
A huge fan of Nat King Cole, he played double bass and entertained club audiences with jokes during breaks from studying law.
He worked briefly as a cruise-ship singer before launching a lucrative career in the booming construction sector and then expanding to set up three national television channels and buy Italian football club AC Milan, which he went on to sell in 2017.
Berlusconi’s political success has been linked to his football glory. But it is also closely entwined with the power of his broadcasting and publishing empire.
His first stint as prime minister lasted from 1994-1996. In 2001, he was elected again after a campaign which included sending a book boasting of his achievements to 15 million Italian homes.
He remained in power until 2006 — the longest premiership in the history of post-war Italy — and as a divided left floundered, he was voted back in for a third time in 2008.
But his premiership ended in 2011 in a blaze of sex scandals and fears Italy was on the brink of a Greek-style financial implosion.
He nearly mounted a comeback two years later, winning almost a third of the vote with an energetic campaign that, as ever, played up his reputation as a winner — on the football pitch and in the boardroom.
But the man the Italian press dub “the knight” has been unable to escape the clutches of judges determined to nail him.
The twice-divorced Berlusconi was forced out of Parliament in 2013 after his conviction for corporate tax fraud was upheld by Italy’s highest court. He said at the time he would not “retire to some convent.”
But his influence waned quickly after he was given a community service order that he served out working with Alzheimer’s sufferers one day a week in an old people’s home.
In 2013 he was also sentenced to seven years for paying for sex with an underage 17-year-old prostitute Karima El-Mahroug, known as “Ruby the Heart Stealer,” and for abusing his powers to get her off theft charges, pretending she was the niece of then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The Ruby conviction was eventually overturned by an appeal court. Not entirely off the hook though, Berlusconi now faces trial over allegations he bought Ruby and other women’s silence with more than €10 million worth of gifts including houses and holidays.
The former leader has gained notoriety for his off-color jokes and diplomatic gaffes, in 2013 likening German politician Martin Schulz to a Nazi, and describing US President Barack Obama as “suntanned.”
The now aging politician has slowed down during the current electoral campaign, with a continuous flow of TV appearances but almost no public event. He also grappled with health issues in recent years, undergoing open heart surgery in 2016.
When asked about his eventual successor though, he responded: “It’s not easy to find a genius, but as I’ll live to be 120, I will find one.”


Number of asylum-seekers in Europe plunges in 2017, says EU

Migrants walk behind a police car during their way from the Austrian-German border to a first registration point. (AFP)
Updated 7 min 45 sec ago
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Number of asylum-seekers in Europe plunges in 2017, says EU

  • Over 460,000 people applied for asylum in Europe in 2013. More than 660,000 did so in 2014
  • Merkel now faces the challenge of persuading EU governments to sign up to a common plan on the migrants

BRUSSELS: The EU’s asylum office says the number of people applying for international protection in Europe has plunged but remains higher than before 2015, when more than 1 million migrants entered, many fleeing the war in Syria.
EASO said in an annual report Monday that 728,470 application requests were made for international protection in 2017, compared to almost 1.3 million applications the previous year. It says around 30 percent of the applicants come from conflict-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
EASO says there is a still a backlog: More than 950,000 applications were still awaiting a final decision at the end of last year, almost half of them in Germany.
Over 460,000 people applied for asylum in Europe in 2013. More than 660,000 did so in 2014.
Meanwhile, hard-liners in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc on Monday gave her a two-week ultimatum to tighten asylum rules or risk pitching Germany into a political crisis that would also rattle Europe.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer’s CSU party at a meeting unanimously backed his call to give Merkel a fortnight to find a European deal on the burning issue by a June 28-29 EU summit, failing which he would order border police to turn back migrants.
Three years after her decision to open Germany’s borders to migrants fleeing war in Syria and Iraq and misery elsewhere, Merkel is still struggling to find a sustainable response to complaints from the CSU, her Bavarian allies, over her refugee policy.
Merkel’s woes come as European Union countries are once again at loggerheads over immigration, triggered by Italy’s refusal this month to allow a rescue ship carrying 630 migrants to dock.
Malta also turned the vessel away, sparking a major EU row until Spain agreed to take in the new arrivals.
Seehofer has been one of the fiercest critics of Merkel’s liberal stance, under which over one million asylum seekers have been admitted into the country since 2015.
He wants to turn away at the border new arrivals who have previously been registered in another EU country — often their first port of call, Italy or Greece.
But Merkel says that would leave countries at the EU’s southern periphery alone to deal with the migrant influx. Instead, she wants to find a common European solution at the EU summit in Brussels.
“How Germany acts will decide whether Europe stays together or not,” Merkel told her CDU party’s leadership at a meeting in Berlin, according to participants.

Popular misgivings over the migrant influx have given populist and anti-immigration forces a boost across several European nations, including Italy and Austria where far-right parties are now sharing power.
In Germany, voters in September’s election handed Merkel her poorest score ever, giving seats for the first time to the far-right anti-Islam AfD.
Several high profile crimes by migrants have also fueled public anger. They include a deadly 2016 Christmas market attack by a failed Tunisian asylum seeker and the rape-murder in May of a teenage girl, allegedly by an Iraqi.
With an eye on October’s Bavaria state election, the CSU is anxious to assure voters that it has a roadmap to curb the migrant influx.
“We must send a signal to the world: it’s no longer possible to just set foot on European soil in order to get to Germany,” a leading CSU figure, Alexander Dobrindt, told the party meeting.
Seehofer had struck a more conciliatory tone, telling Bild on Sunday: “It is not in the CSU’s interest to topple the chancellor, to dissolve the CDU-CSU union or to break up the coalition.
“We just want to finally have a sustainable solution to send refugees back to the borders.”

Merkel now faces the challenge of persuading EU governments to sign up to a common plan on the migrants.
Central and eastern EU nations such as Hungary and Poland have either refused outright or resisted taking in refugees under an EU quota system.
A populist-far right government in Italy and the conservative-far right cabinet in neighboring Austria have also taken an uncompromising stance.
Merkel’s talks later Monday with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Germany could prove crucial if she is to have any chance of forging an agreement in Brussels.
On Tuesday, she will also meet French President Emmanuel Macron in Germany.
Berlin is also reportedly preparing to call a meeting between Merkel and the leaders of several EU frontline nations in the migrant crisis ahead of the EU summit.
“It would be almost a miracle if she emerges a winner from the next EU summit,” Welt daily said.
But the chancellor may have no choice, as Seehofer could still launch the nuclear option of shutting Germany’s borders in defiance of her — an act of rebellion which would force her to sack him.
That “would be the end of the government and the alliance between CDU and CSU,” an unnamed CDU source told Bild.