L’AQUILA, Italy (Reuters) - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged to move July’s G8 summit to the quake-hit area of central Italy on Thursday in a show of solidarity that also deals with the original island venue’s logistics problems.
The surprise decision ends more than two years of planning for the event on the sun-soaked, remote island of Maddalena and allows Berlusconi to maintain the focus on the earthquake, his hands-on response to which has boosted his popularity ratings.
“What seat would be more appropriate than a land wounded by the earthquake?” Berlusconi told a news conference in L’Aquila, after his cabinet met in the quake-hit area to allocate eight billion euros for rebuilding.
The 220 million euros needed for summit security and infrastructure in Sardinia could be invested in the quake-hit region this way, and protesters would be hesitant to stir trouble in a “land wounded” by the quake, said Berlusconi.
“The 21 heads of government who come will be able to see first hand the wounds caused by this earthquake,” Berlusconi said, calling it a “message of hope” for the region.
Government officials said other G8 members would be asked to approve the change but Berlusconi seemed determined.
“I think it could work out very well,” he said.
Local officials in the quake-hit area have welcomed plans to host the G8 summit but there have been signs of dissent within Berlusconi’s cabinet over the move, with at least one minister saying it would be “implausible” and difficult to pull off.
Italian media have said the July 8-10 Maddalena summit was turning into a logistics nightmare, with difficulty finding the right-sized cruise ships to house delegates and complicated arrangements to ferry around press and security forces.
Maddalena was partly picked as the venue because its remote location would have deterred protesters. One protester was killed in clashes the last time Italy hosted a G8 summit, which was held in Genoa in 2001.
The prime minister also announced that U.S. President Barack Obama had asked Italy to host an environment summit in Maddalena in autumn.
It was not immediately clear how the mediaeval mountain city of L’Aquila itself— now strewn with rubble, collapsed buildings and ringed by blue tent camps holding tens of thousands of newly homeless — would accommodate thousands expected for the summit.
The area is, however, only some 70 miles from Rome, which would make it possible for heads of state to stay in the Italian capital and be shuttled to the new G8 venue.
The April 6 earthquake in the central region of Abruzzo — Italy’s worst in three decades — killed 296 people, flattened entire areas of some towns and made some 63,000 people homeless.
An opinion poll published this week showed Berlusconi’s popularity rating rose in April for the first time since October, boosted by the quick roll-out of relief efforts and his frequent trips to the area to encourage survivors.
Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Jon Boyle