ROME, April 24 (Reuters) - Genius or folly? By moving the G8 from an idyllic Mediterranean island to a landscape blighted by an earthquake, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is gambling that his shock decision will reap huge political gains.
“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.”
To the surprise of even some of his ministers, Berlusconi announced on Thursday that July’s meeting of the world’s most powerful leaders will move to l‘Aquila, a medieval city devastated by Italy’s worst natural disaster in three decades.
“My guess is that his approval rating will soar if he manages to pull off the G8 proposal. He reacts well to emergencies and he adores being in the limelight,” said James Walston, political science professor at the American University of Rome.
“I guess it’s both genius and folly. With someone like Berlusconi, the two sometimes go together very well.”
With his decision, Berlusconi seemed to kill several birds with one stone:
-- The original venue for the summit, the island of Maddalena, was turning into a logistics and security nightmare, with difficulty finding cruise ships to house delegates and ferries to shuttle media and police forces.
-- By moving the venue, Italy would save some 220 million euros it could divert to reconstruction.
-- The austere backdrop would 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 commentators said it would be difficult for them to say no.
And even if they do, Berlusconi will be able to say that he tried.
Even some of Berlusconi’s harshest critics have had to swallow their pride. “It is a sign of attention towards populations that have been sorely tried,” said Guglielmo Epifani, leader of Italy’s largest labour 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 which Berlusconi has been using as his headquarters and which could host the summit.
The area is only some 70 miles from Rome, which would make it possible for heads of state to sleep in the comfort and security of their embassies and be shuttled by helicopter in just a few minutes to the L‘Aquila area.
The Italian media are also suggesting as possible venues, for at least some of the meetings, hotels on the Gran Sasso mountain near L‘Aquila.
Opinion polls show approval ratings for Berlusconi and his centre-right government of above 50 percent and many look with favour on the hands-on way he has dealt with the earthquake.
He has gone to the area nearly every other day and on Thursday he bussed his whole government there for a cabinet meeting. (Editing by Andrew Roche)