Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, has insisted that the scandals surrounding the private life of Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, have not had a direct impact on Italy’s foreign policy but warned that rivals on the international scene were trying to exploit his troubles for their own ends.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Frattini, a loyal ally of the prime minister, projected his view of the world as a global competition for influence in politics and business where dark forces will use illegitimate means to denigrate their competitors.
Over the past four months Mr Berlusconi, 72, has had to fight off allegations of improper relationships with young women – first levelled by his estranged wife, Veronica Lario – and accusations, made by a 42-year-old escort and a businessman under investigation for corruption, of parties and nights spent with prostitutes.
Mr Berlusconi is suing at least four newspapers, two Italian and two foreign. Last week he spent much of a press conference with José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, his Spanish counterpart, denying that he had paid for sex, while acknowledging that the businessman, Giampaolo Tarantini, had introduced him to beautiful women.
“Attempts to multiply the effects abroad show there is a network of people who use attacks on Berlusconi to undermine the image of our country,” Mr Frattini said. “Let’s exploit him, they say.”
Mr Frattini, while echoing Mr Berlusconi’s allegations of multiple conspiracies against him and Italy as a whole, declined to identify his suspects.
“I cannot say who as foreign minister,” he said. But he said “the competition” was being played out in the Mediterranean, in Russia and in oil markets.
He drew particular attention to Italy’s role in South Stream, a planned pipeline to take gas from Russia to Europe across the Black Sea, bypassing Ukraine.
How was it, he asked, that Italy was often singled out for criticism over the project, while the UK and Germany escaped censure over similar North Stream pipeline plans that would bypass the Baltic states?
“If you try to undermine the image of Italy, you are playing an unfair game,” he said. “When Italy goes up in playing important roles in international co-operation, for example in Afghanistan or Russia, if I gain ground, someone loses.”
Italy’s foreign policy establishment was dismayed last week when the heads of government of the UK, France and Germany left out Italy when issuing a letter to Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, calling for a high-level conference on Afghanistan.
Italy is a big contributor of troops in Afghanistan and Mr Frattini said he was “absolutely the first” in mid-August in proposing such a conference.
Clearly upset that Italy was not included by Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel, Mr Frattini recalled that a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Stockholm on September 4 and 5 had agreed the conference should be an EU initiative.
“Then the letter came out a day later,” he said, noting he had had no prior knowledge. “Frankly speaking, if I was the EU presidency, I would be a bit disappointed and more,” he added.
But he strongly denied concerns among Italian politicians that Mr Berlusconi had been deliberately excluded because he was seen as a liability on the foreign stage. Asked if Italy’s non-inclusion might however be an example of rivals trying to put Italy down, he replied diplomatically: “I don’t know.”
Mr Frattini said he intended to regain the initiative by presenting a detailed proposal for the conference at a meeting of Group of Eight foreign ministers he will chair in New York on September 23. Italy holds the G8 presidency this year.
Presenting examples of how Italy’s foreign policy was successfully delivering political and commercial results, Mr Frattini noted that to the envy of other Europeans Italy would host foreign and economic ministers from all the Arab countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council next month, and at least seven heads of state from Latin America at a summit in December.