Berlusconi in Geldof Interview: “Africa, I’m Sorry”

Sunday’s special edition of La Stampa which Bob Geldof edited, also presented an opportunity for Geldof to interview Italy’s Prime Minister Berlusconi. In the interview, Geldof asks some very pointed questions about Italy’s failure to deliver on their promises to Africa, and the fact that Italy has only met 3% of what it had promised.

Full account of the interview, courtesy of Eloise Todd, below:

Silvio Berlusconi and Bob Geldof met each other in the courtyard of Palazzo Chigi. The Prime Minister was suffering from a stiff neck, but kept the promise to respond to the criticisms of the rock star famous for his public efforts for Africa. Geldof, straight in from London, wanted to go over the questions and data on Italian aid to Africa.

They found each other again a moment later outside the study of the Prime Minister. They sat in the centre, next to one another, their teams were on two sofas facing each other, the advisers of ONE, the NGO for Africa, on one side, and the men of the Foreign Ministry and Palazzo Chigi on the other, including Gianni Letta and Paolo Bonaiuti.

What followed was not a conventional interview, but an exchange which almost resembled a boxing match. I thought at times that first Berlusconi, then Geldof, would get up and abandon the meeting, but in the end they managed to get to the end of the interview and the encounter stayed gentlemanly.

Geldof: “Signor Presidente, let’s get straight to the point. You are the senior statesman of the G8. In 2001 in Genoa, you created the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria, which made ARVs available for free for 3 million people in Africa. Then you participated in the Gleneagles Summit, where you committed to invest 0.51% of GNI in ODA by 2010 and 0.7% GNI by 2015: right now Italy has met only 3% of that promise. From the hope of Genoa to the delusion of Gleneagles: do you feel the weight of this responsibility?”

Berlusconi begins reading from a statement: “You are right. It’s a delay in payments. We, however, were out of government for two and a half years. When we returned, we found a deficit of 110% GDP. Now, because of the economic crisis, this deficit is up to 120% and the European Union will not allow us to stay at this level. When considering the budget law, the Parliament has decided to cut spending. Unfortunately they also cut aid to Africa, and we have started a debate on this. The Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti is committed to getting us back on track with our commitments in 3 years.”

Geldof becomes agitated: “The G8 is in 3 days, not 3 years, as President of this Summit, what are you going to do?”

Berlusconi: “Look, what has happened is absolutely the opposite of what I have been doing personally: this year I financed an orphanage in Thailand and a hospital for children in Brazil. I understand your worry and I very much appreciate the work that you have done for the poorest, but we have had external obstacles standing in our way.”

Berlusconi gives the floor to the diplomatic adviser of Tremonti “we have begun to repay the World Bank our outstanding payments, as well as other international financial organisations. In 2010 we will reach 0.33% of GDP to ODA, and we’ll get to 0.51% by 2015…”

Geldof interrupts: “Excuse me, I am aware of all this. Thanks for the explanation,” and he turns towards the Prime Minister: “I don’t believe you. In order to reach those levels you will have to do an incredible job. And we don’t need any more plans, right now we need action. I’m sick of plans, we just need to act. We must have more ODA. When we cut aid, we take food from the mouths of the starving. We literally take the needles from the arms of patients. Why must we behave like this? Africa is the second biggest emerging market after China. It’s got more democratic countries than Asia. We’re talking about tiny amounts of money: why is it so difficult to find this money for aid? The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel Prime Minister Brown, even President Sarkozy have increased aid, but Italy has cut by €400m. All these countries’ economies are a disaster, but all have kept their promise they made to the poor. Except Italy. How can you lead the G8? Where is your credibility? This is a human question, not a tactical question. We are tired of seeing people that die of hunger!

Berlusconi starts to nod, he has been struck by the image of starving children.

Geldof adds: “I speak as a businessman. I’ve seen the agreement you have done with Gadaffi, all business and concrete action: why not extend this beyond to the entire continent? Guide the G8 towards a different perception of Africa?”

Berlusconi: “Yes, yes. I am also the leader with the most experience on these matters. The others are children compared to me. On this point, however, I have had to follow the position of my Finance Minister. He has a strong personality and maintains that the first thing we must respect is our obligations to the EU institutions and international finance. But he has promised that we will be back on track with the commitments on ODA in 3 years. Look, you live this problem with intense emotion: money is food, and I appreciate your work very much. I have talked with Tremonti and have also argued with him about this, he’s presented me with his resignation many times – jokes Berlusconi – I however, have rejected it because I don’t have another Minister available. On the table at the G8 there will be 5 or 6 important issues: Africa will be one of these. Later, on the financing, I’ll look at changing the recovery plan.”

Geldof shakes his head: He shows to Berlusconi the document that the PM approved at the G8 in Gleneagles: “Here is the signature of a country and the honour of a man.”

Berlusconi reads it and admits: “I’m sorry, we have made a mistake.”

Geldof then continues: “A reason why this crisis is so serious is the fact that we left 50% of the world outside the system. How is it possible to live on 2 dollars a day? And if you have so little, how can you buy our products? Africa is a bigger market than Brazil , Russia or Mexico: shouldn’t we include it? If African citizens can buy our goods, there would also be more jobs in Italy.”

Berlusconi clenches his fist: “You are right, when one commits to something, it has to be maintained. We are behind, and we have to put this right. I’m sorry to have not maintained these promises, you have to take into account all the things that have got in the way of us achieving them. The crisis, the earthquake. We also have a big situation with the opposition, the judges that attack us..”

Gledof stops him again: “But this, Prime Minister, is not a discussion about media or the judicial system: we are talking about defenceless poor people.”

At this point, looking to calm the tone, Gianni Letta intervenes “You heard: our Prime minister has expressed willingness to find a solution.”

Geldof: “OK, but the G8 is in 3 days. The American President Obama has said that he also wants to deal with the emergency in poor countries: can we get to something concrete?”

Berlusconi: “I had a great meeting with President Obama, he made a great impression on me. He said that he would like to create a fund for agriculture and food security; he promised to give $1bn dollars for the next four years and now he would like that the other 7 countries of the G8 put in another $1 billion.”

Geldof: “Would that be new funds or from existing ODA?”

Berlusconi: “New funds, yes. You see that I’m serious? Before we met I read the things you have written about us, berating Italy for not having met our commitments, and despite that I have not avoided this interview. I’ve done it because I appreciate your effort. We’re absolutely in the wrong and I want to put myself to work with someone like you who spends his life pursuing this beautiful mission. OK? We’re trying not to disappoint you.”

Geldof: “Prime Minister, let’s forget this interview with La Stampa and speak frankly between us: what are we going to do?”

Once again Letta intervenes: “Our Prime minister recognises your suggestions and will elaborate a response in the coming days.”

Geldof: “It’s a question of credibility. Political credibility. You risk becoming known as ‘Mr 3%’ someone who keeps only 3% of his promises. What are you going to do in l’Aquila?”

Berlusconi doesn’t understand what ‘Mr 3%’ means. His assistant, Valentino Valentini, who is providing interpretation for the meeting, explains Geldof’s accusation to him. Berlusconi becomes more serious and clearly enunciates his words: “As an entrepreneur, I have always fulfilled a promise, and with the electorate I have behaved in the same way. In this case it’s because of an impossible situation in the budget that was not in my control. If we had given funds in this way we would have received terrible penalties from Europe. We’re in the impossible situation of trying to fulfil our goals, without having the possibility of spending. Now we have to find a way to close other finances and put funds in the direction of aid. Perhaps we will have the possibility to do it, but there will be very painful cuts.”

Geldof: “But this would be an investment”

Berlusconi: “Yes, of that I’m sure. I read the latest UN report which said that in the next 15 years there will be 2 billion more people in the world, who will be born in countries where there is no social welfare. We will do it all, if not there will not be a chance for liberty, democracy and wellbeing to develop. But right now there has not been the possibility to do it, because Europe threatens penalties….”

Geldof: “Don’t blame Brussels, Prime Minister, Brussels is farther away from Rome than Africa. I’ve been to Lampedusa: if you want to stop the tragedy of illegal immigration you must help to create better living conditions and help build economies of the countries the people come from. Prime Minister, when the rich get less rich, the poor get even poorer.”

Berlusconi: “Of course: and the more poor a person becomes, the more desperate he becomes. I know well that to help them is not only a duty but is also in our interest.”

Geldof: “Would you say that in l’Aquila you will do something?”

Berlusconi: “We will take the lead. Together with Obama we will act, of that I am absolutely convinced. We’ll see what we can do.”

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