"This is the way I'm made," said the host of today's G8 summit, amid allegations that he entertained escorts at his homes in Rome and on Sardinia. For those who do not follow the daily instalments of the Silvio Berlusconi soap opera, those allegations come after his estranged wife, Veronica, accused him of picking showgirls as election candidates and attending the 18th birthday party of an aspiring actress and model from Naples. The thrice-elected prime minister continued: "People take me as they find me. And Italians want me." And they do. His popularity has only slipped six points since his wife said she was filing for divorce. It currently stands at 49%. Which raises the question: if Italy wants Mr Berlusconi as its prime minister, should the G8 want Italy?
True, it is harder these days to define the values of the industrialised rich. The G20 is almost certainly a more fitting forum for global matters such as a reserve currency, climate change and trade. The hard question is whether Italy, after a decade of economic drift, now fits the basic requirements for a seat at any international table. Italy ranks 76th on the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom, which it defines as the freedom to work, consume and invest unconstrained by the state. That is behind such denizens of liberalism as Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Madagascar. Transparency International's corruption index places Italy 55th on its list of the world's least corrupt countries. Italian politicians are seen as less trustworthy than those in Pakistan, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Senegal and Sierra Leone.
So, when the leaders of the world's largest economies meet today - at Mr Berlusconi's insistence - in an earthquake zone (the stricken city of L'Aquila is still experiencing aftershocks), they are entitled to ask themselves where they have landed - in a first-world country or a third-world one. To judge Italy by the standards of economic freedom, corruption and freedom of the media, the answer is not obvious. Mr Berlusconi is the symptom but not necessarily the entire cause of his country's drift. Italians are not scandalised by him. They are dismayed about being criticised in the foreign press as a result of his antics, but they are not calling for the man himself to go.
Other European countries have coped with charismatic populists. France had a heavy dose of Nicolas Sarkozy in his bling phase, until the French said "ça suffit" and the president changed tack. But that is not happening in an Italy which secretly admires the agility of its leaders in escaping from the tightest of political corners. Until Italians start demanding serious standards from their leaders, the country is perhaps not the best venue for serious world summits. The Guardian, Wednesday 8 July 2009