Berlusconi payback

EC orders Mediaset to refund government

The European Commission has told Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s new government to claw back millions of euros in illegal subsidies from the media mogul-turned pol’s Mediaset broadcasting empire.

Conflict-of-interest fears that have dogged Berlusconi since he first entered politics will be further heightened by the fact that his administration will be allowed to decide how much money to take back.

Around e220 million ($350 million) were channeled to Mediaset and other broadcasters by the previous Berlusconi administration in 2004-05 to help defray the cost of decoders for digital terrestrial TV.

Mediaset was seen as the big winner because the funding allowed it to launch its lucrative Premium Gallery service — sparking complaints from Sky Italia, and an EC investigation.

The EC’s competition office confirmed it has ordered the Italian government to recover some of the funds.

But spokeswoman Maria Javorova said that “it would be for the Italian state to decide the exact amount of aid to be recovered.”

She refused to comment on conflict-of-interest fears.

Just days before his triumph in this month’s Italian elections, Berlusconi told journalists that such fears had “no basis or substance.”

A spokesman for Italy’s communications ministry was not available for comment.

Mediaset said in a statement Thursday that it would contest the repayment of the subsidies. It said the EC’s demands were “completely without foundation.”

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