Silvio plays host to a powerful lady ? and the earth doesn’t move

Author: By Peter Popham

He guided the German Chancellor Angela Merkel through the rubble of the village of Onna, where 40 people perished on 6 April, and Ms Merkel was duly grateful. “It gives all of us an extra push to do everything possible to swiftly provide help,” she said. Onna was the place worst hit by the quake, which killed 300 and made tens of thousands homeless across the region. Germany has a special reason to help out: in 1944, German soldiers rounded up 17 Italian civilians here and shot them dead. Now was the time to make amends. “The world has changed,” Ms Merkel noted. “We have become friends with the people [of Onna] and Germany can help.”

This was the sort of publicity any prime minister would relish. And there was more: even the locals seemed to approve. “It’s a good idea to have the G8 here,” one resident said. “The more people that come, the better.” Mr Berlusconi preened, delighted at not having his back against the wall for a change. “Onna will be completely rebuilt,” he declared sonorously at a memorial to the disaster. “I promise you.”

It was on 24 April ? a week before his wife launched her attack and the nightmare began ? that the Italian Prime Minister had the extraordinary notion that the G8 summit should be shifted from sun-kissed Sardinia to the gritty mountain town levelled by an earthquake a fortnight earlier. What was even more amazing than the idea itself was the speed with which everyone fell in with it, from the Italian opposition to Barack Obama.

Yesterday the drawbacks became apparent. The venue outside the city is a soulless modern police college, easy to make secure but with nothing else to recommend it. Facilities for the 3,000 journalists following the summit are primitive, and their accommodation is a long coach ride away. Strong tremors this week raised the spectre of the event being evacuated to Rome should another earthquake strike. “That depends on God Almighty,” commented Sergio Romano, a retired senior Italian diplomat. “We’ll see whether He’s on [Mr Berlusconi’s] side.”

So far the Almighty seems to be smiling. As the revelations about sexy Sardinian shenanigans flooded in last month, a petition was started by two Italian women academics imploring the wives of G8 leaders to snub the event as a sign of their disgust at Mr Berlusconi’s behaviour. Yet they have turned up in strength: even Carla Bruni-Sarkozy will be showing her face, a day late, despite her evident disgruntlement with the Italian premier. When Mr Berlusconi remarked last year that President Obama was “young, handsome and well-tanned”, the Italian-born model-turned-singer commented: “Often I am happy that I have become French.”

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