With a new Silvio Berlusconi sex scandal involving prostitutes and an underage girl of Moroccan origin dominating Italian political debate, people in Brussels are lamenting the damage to Italy's reputation. Meanwhile, the leader of the MEPs from Berlusconi's party is distancing himself from the prime minister's behaviour.
The Italian prime minister stands accused of paying to have sex during erotic parties hosted in his own house and other apartments owned by him in Milan.
The accusation is not new for Berlusconi, who in 2009 had to face another sex scandal after a prostitute made public recorded private conversations with the prime minister. However, this time the accusations are more serious, since prosecutors accuse him of having had sex with an underage girl, Karima el-Mahroug, known in Italy as Ruby.
The content of wiretaps describing wild parties in Berlusconi's house have been made public by many media in Italy.
"You cannot even imagine what goes on there. The papers say a lot less than the truth," a woman was recorded as saying after a party in Berlusconi's house in Arcore, Milan.
Berlusconi defended himself from the accusations by broadcasting a TV message in which he denounced a prosecutor's plot against him and said he had a secret partner who would have never allowed sex parties like those of which he stands accused of hosting.
The new scandal emerged after the Italian Constitutional Court rejected a law aimed at maintaining the prime minister's immunity and suspending trials in which he is accused of corruption and fiscal fraud. If passed, the law would prevent any further trials for Berlusconi during his political mandate.
Italy's future at stake
The political and economic future of one of the six founding countries of the European Union and the third biggest economy of the euro area is at stake.
Berlusconi emerged politically intact from the last sexgate in 2009, but this time he can only count on a tiny majority in parliament after his political party (PdL) split in 2010. In December, he barely managed to be ousted, winning a three-vote majority in the Italian lower chamber.
Many opposition parties, including leftist, centre-left and catholic forces, are openly asking him to resign. The Church, which still plays an important political role in Italy, spoke of a "disturbing" situation.
Even Berlusconi's allies from far-right party Lega Nord could not help expressing their concern about the situation.
Early elections remain an option, but Berlusconi continues to oppose them. Support for him is falling and if he loses he will be faced with many criminal charges without the shield of political immunity.
The main argument used by Berlusconi to refuse elections is that they would give a sign of weakness to financial markets at a moment of high volatility, when many eurozone economies are under tough scrutiny from investors.
"Markets include democracy," said Italy's Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti yesterday (18 January) after the Economic and Finance Ministers' Council (ECOFIN) in Brussels, denying that new elections would pose a financial risk.
Concern in Brussels
Whatever happens, the series of scandals involving the prime minister has already had an impact on Italy's reputation abroad, with the world press giving extensive coverage to Berlusconi's misadventures.
The impact is potentially more damaging in Brussels, where a number of key political battles are fought.
Berlusconi's sexgate, frequent trials and controversial political connections (for instance with Muammar al-Gaddafi or Vladimir Putin) "are affecting Italian interests and our daily work," a top Italian lobbyist in Brussels told EURACTIV, preferring not to be named.
"Colleagues from other national associations often ask if I'm back from a bunga-bunga when I'm late or tired," commented another Italian lobbyist, referring to the code name for sex games used by Berlusconi and his close friends.
Others believe recent diplomatic and political setbacks suffered by Italy on key dossiers, including the European patent and 'Made in' labels, are a consequence of the prime minister's loss of credibility.
Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, spokesperson for European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, preferred not to comment on the latest developments.
An unexpectedly critical opinion came, however, from Mario Mauro, one of Berlusconi's closest allies in Brussels and head of the Popolo della Libertà members of the European Parliament.
Mauro, who was Berlusconi's candidate for president of the European Parliament in 2009, said yesterday (18 January) that his values were "different from Berlusconi's," but this had no impact on his political activities.