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Italy pm takes on eu presidency

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Posted on Mon, Jun. 30, 2003

Italy Takes on EU Presidency
Associated Press

BRUSSELS, Belgium - He's already Italy's richest man, a billionaire media tycoon, soccer supremo - and Italian prime minister. On Tuesday, Silvio Berlusconi gets to represent the European Union.

The prospect is provoking diplomatic concern and howls of outrage from headline writers around the continent as Italy - with Berlusconi at its helm - assumes the six-month rotating EU presidency Tuesday.

"Europe united in disgust as Berlusconi takes EU throne," ran a page-topping banner Monday in London's newspaper The Independent.

"The Godfather, now showing across Europe," the German news weekly Der Spiegel wrote on its front cover, under a picture of Berlusconi seated on a golden throne.

"At home he is dismantling the judiciary, subjugating TV, gets laws from Parliament as he needs them," the magazine wrote. "Now Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will represent Europe."

Italy's presidency starts one day after a court in Milan suspended Berlusconi's trial on charges of bribing judges, under a recently enacted law granting immunity to Italy's top five officials - including the prime minister.

However, judges trying Berlusconi's case asked Italy's Supreme Court on Monday to decide whether the immunity law is constitutional.

While an avalanche of negative media comment has focused on Berlusconi's legal problems, business dealings and influence over Italy's television channels, European diplomats are also worried about some of his recent foreign policy initiatives.

Berlusconi has deviated from EU orthodoxy by suggesting that Russia and Israel may soon join the EU; following a U.S. rather than EU line by refusing to meet Yasser Arafat on a recent Middle East visit; and pushing to end an arms embargo on Col. Moammar Gadhafi's Libya.

Asked Monday about Berlusconi's EU expansion plans, EU spokesman Diego Ojeda pointed out that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ruled out applying for membership any time soon. Israel, located in Asia, does not "fulfill the geographic criteria," Ojeda said.

Berlusconi defended himself Monday in a rare radio interview with France's Europe-1 station from his residence on the island of Sardinia.

He said Italy's EU presidency would focus on rebuilding relations between Europe and the United States, damaged in the run-up to the Iraq conflict. Germany and France opposed military action while Berlusconi's Italy joined Britain and Spain in supporting the war.

"The West must be united," he said. "One can be very European ... and also be a friend of the biggest democracy in the world, the United States."

In the interview, the conservative premier linked the European media criticism against him to the influence of left-wing journalists in Italy.

"The leftist press in Italy has made war since I arrived on the scene and since they lost the elections," he said. "There is a division between the moderate people and the extremists, between love and hate, good and evil, truth and lies, that's what's happening in Italy with the newspapers."

Officials at EU headquarters are anxious that the fighting talk that's become a Berlusconi trademark in Italian politics won't spill over into his relations with his partner in running EU business - former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

The two men were bitter political rivals before Prodi moved to Brussels as president of the European Commission - the EU's full-time executive arm and civil service. By most accounts, the two still detest each other.

Before his trial was halted in Milan, Berlusconi used his time in court to accuse Prodi of selling a state-owned company too cheaply, when he headed the state holding company in the 1980s.

Speaking about the use of the media during an election campaign, Prodi was quoted by an Italian newspaper in 1996 as comparing Berlusconi to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Prodi could be the front-runner to replace Berlusconi as premier after when his EU term ends next year.

The two men are scheduled to give a news conference together Wednesday setting out their objectives for Europe after Berlusconi addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

Berlusconi can expect a mixed reception at the EU assembly.

The Greens plans a demonstration. Liberal Democrat leader Graham Watson said if Italy were among the 10 nations joining the EU next year - "it would not be accepted ... because we demand standards higher than these."

However, the Parliament's president, Pat Cox, said Europe should have confidence in the Italian premier.

"Foreign newspapers have talked a lot about Berlusconi, because he's a colorful personality and at the same time controversial," Cox was quoted telling the Milan daily Corriere della Sera. "We should have confidence in Italy."

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