Italy's lower house of parliament is expected today to vote to grant legal immunity to Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, freezing for the rest of his term a trial in which he is accused of bribing judges. Many deputies will back the measure in the belief that they are sparing their country embarrassment during Italy's six-month presidency of the European Union, which begins on July 1.
They are badly mistaken. Such a transparent manoeuvre is a deep embarrassment for both Italy and the EU, casting doubt over the quality of democracy citizens can expect. For a prime minister to use his parliamentary majority to set himself above the law in a case of blatant self-interest - and for that to be tolerated by other governments - throws a shadow over the entire EU.
For a second time, Mr Berlusconi yesterday addressed the Milan court conducting the three-year-old trial in which he is accused of bribing judges to influence a takeover battle for SME, a former state-owned food company, in the 1980s.
It was pure political theatre. "There is no evidence, no proof or testimony and there is no motive," he declared in a 70-minute, unscripted speech. He did not submit to cross-examination, or directly address evidence that the prosecution has put forward of bank transfers made by Mr Berlusconi's associates. No businessman in Italy would pay bribes by such easy-to-trace transfers, he asserted.
Mr Berlusconi insists that this, the latest and most serious of many cases involving alleged corruption and other offences pursued against him since he became a politician, is part of a vendetta by left-wing magistrates and judges in Milan. He insists he got involved in the SME affair at the invitation of Bettino Craxi, the then prime minister, to prevent the company being sold too cheaply to another businessman, Carlo de Benedetti.
Mr Berlusconi's supporters say the proposed law is needed to prevent judges from meddling in politics and would bring Italy into line with other European countries. It would restore, for five main office-holders, the immunity that all parliamentarians enjoyed before the "Clean Hands" corruption scandals of the early 1990s.
There is a genuine debate to be had about Italian justice. The government wants to see changes that would prevent magistrates from stepping up to become judges in the same district, which it believes would help prevent bias. Others would like to see measures to speed up the system. That debate should be conducted in a calmer climate, not via a measure rushed through to get the prime minister off the hook. By refusing to fight through the courts, Mr Berlusconi deals a blow to faith in the country's institutions.
Other EU leaders are unlikely to dare to interfere. This bill is, nonetheless, an abuse of power. It diminishes Italy's standing and, by extension, that of EU leaders who turn a blind eye to it.