The Brief, powered by ENTSO-E — The Cavaliere’s Gambit

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Leading Italian politicians and their parties are getting ready for the election of the next head of state, a process that resembles a complex chess game where the piece delivering checkmate could, sometimes, be the one you least expect.

The presidential election will be a delicate exercise, and political players have begun preparations ahead of the showdown scheduled for early February.

Every vote counts as the peculiar election system — which includes MPs and delegates from local administrations — lends itself to plots and manoeuvrings in the best Machiavellian tradition.

Some analysts argue, for instance, that a recent law against homophobia was voted down at the end of October with the help of smaller parties as a token of their political relevance in the presidential race.

A memorable indicator of how unpredictable things can get came in 2013 when former Commission chief Romano Prodi saw his hopes of becoming the new host of the Quirinal Palace dashed by a group of 101 ‘betrayers’ — including a young Matteo Renzi — who voted in a secret ballot against the party’s order to support his candidacy.

This time, former prime minister and current MEP Silvio Berlusconi, who turned 85 in September, is expected to throw his hat into the race.

According to Corriere della Sera, last week, MPs found in their mailboxes at the House of Representatives “a monograph of Berlusconi with some of his speeches on the values of liberalism, Catholicism and civil liberties.”

Although there was no real need to introduce his thoughts to Italian politicians, the move was seen as a formal start of his election campaign.

The president of the republic is a central figure in the country’s political system as s/he is entrusted with powers to solve government crises – which, as we all know, happen quite often in Italy.

Furthermore, the president remains in office for seven years, providing a stable reference point for foreign governments no matter how overheated the internal political situation is.

Putting a controversial figure like Berlusconi at the top of the constitutional system seems too much, even for a politically creative country such as this.

But this is clearly the very last chance for Berlusconi to fulfil his dream of a lifetime. After watching other players’ openings, he made his move because he saw some remote ground to pull it off.

The key to this is — somewhat shockingly — in the Five Star Movement, which he considers the political force that can tip the balance in the end.

In a recent interview, Berlusconi surprisingly endorsed the Movement’s flagship policy, the citizens’ basic income, which is currently under attack by both the right-wing and the centre-left.

Of course, Berlusconi remains the Movement’s arch-enemy, but it is also true that the anti-establishment party has made lots of U-turns since the start of the mandate.

They are now ruling together with a collection of their previous opponents, including right-wing Lega, centre-left Democratic Party, Matteo’s Renzi’s party Italia Viva, and even Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

The other reason behind Berlusconi’s hopes is not the lack of good candidates but the difficulties in moving pieces across the Quirinal’s chessboard.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi, for instance, has already displayed supreme qualities: he convinced parties used to fighting each other to death to form a government in a sort of a ‘pax draghiana’.

At the same time, moving Draghi from the executive to the Quirinal square is complicated as this would trigger snap elections, which Five Star and PD want to avoid.

Other powerful pieces could come into play, like Paolo Gentiloni, but he is a rook that needs to be moved very cautiously because of his current job at the Commission.

In this game, Berlusconi is more of a knight — incidentally, the English translation of his historical nickname in Italy, il Cavaliere.

The knight is not as powerful as queens or rooks but can deliver spectacular checkmates with its non-linear moves.

However, moving the knight too early could be a gambit that the centre-right coalition could not afford, and many of Berlusconi’s advisers have suggested playing it cool for the moment.

Indeed, an unwritten rule in the Quirinale’s race says that the first pieces that check must be captured before they can mate.

Starting from an unfavourable position, Berlusconi has to force others to uncover their attacking moves while preparing the ground for his grand entrance at the end game.

That end game will start after the third ballot when all he needs is the majority of voters and not the two-thirds of the elective assembly.

It may be a long shot, and Il Cavaliere probably won’t become Italy’s next president, but he will undoubtedly give it a try.


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The Roundup

France and the EU should help organise “emergency” repatriation of French and other European women and children stuck in Syria before winter sets in, a French delegation said upon return from a mission to northeast Syria. There are an estimated 645 European children and 231 European women in Syrian camps.

EU member states must take more concrete and legally binding steps to ensure equality across all public and private institutions, experts said at the recent Conference on Promoting Equality Mainstreaming. One expert said that equality duties must be “positive duties, advancing what we want to achieve,” rather than imposing fines on those that do not comply with standards.

Three television channels and several magazines will publish an awareness campaign to educate about LGBTI families in Hungary, despite previous pushback from a Hungarian media regulator. Last June, the Hungarian parliament passed a law introducing heavy sanctions on sexual crimes against minors, which also outlaws “promoting or portraying” homosexuality or sex reassignment to minors and limits sexual education in schools.  

German Health Minister Jens Spahn has called for further pandemic restrictions as Germany’s rate of coronavirus infections hit a record high this week. On Monday, Spahn said that by the end of the winter, almost everyone in Germany would be “vaccinated, recovered or dead.” 

And the European Commission is aiming to streamline the duration of validity for the bloc’s vaccination certificate, including the effects of booster shots, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said on Monday. “We are determined to reverse the current wave…and we are also aware that we need to give clear, coherent messages to citizens,” she said.

A new report from the European Central Bank alleges that not one of the 112 European member banks is close to fully aligning with the bloc’s climate and environmental risk management guidelines. “Banks urgently need to set ambitious and concrete goals and timelines – including measurable intermediate milestones – to mitigate their exposure to current and future C&E risks,” according to a member of the ECB’s executive board.

A drafted Commission proposal, seen by EURACTIV, aims to overhaul the EU gas market by introducing new rights for consumers to choose their supplier, but stops short of setting the targets demanded by industry to ramp up the consumption of renewable and low-carbon gases. The proposal is subject to change before its presentation on 14 December.

The Digital Markets Act (DMA), a draft EU law intended to impose specific obligations on gatekeeper platforms, has been endorsed with an overwhelming majority by a key European Parliament committee and will now be voted on in the December plenary session.

Look out for…

  • Innovation Commissioner Mariya Gabriel delivers opening speech at the European Innovation Council (EIC) Summit in Brussels.
  • European Parliament plenary session through 25 November. 
  • Fifty-third meeting of the European Economic Area (EEA) Council.

Views are the author’s.

[Edited  by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor]

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