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Italy: Berlusconi Government Out Of Step With EU Partners

Italy's mercurial prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and his center-right coalition government are increasingly out of step with their partners in the European Union. Berlusconi, a billionaire media magnate, has never been particularly pro-European, and a string of recent events have hinted at a gulf opening between Brussels and Rome. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at whether EU founding member Italy, which has always been noted for its loyalty to the union, is going down its own road.

Prague, 2 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Silvio Berlusconi is a man with an aura of success, as befits an individual who has built a business empire worth billions of dollars. But he has always been controversial, both for his methods in business and now for his actions as Italy's prime minister.

The latest round of controversies began with his comment -- made in the wake of the September terrorist attacks in the United States -- that Western culture is superior to Islamic civilization.

That enflamed the mood in the Islamic world at a time when the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign was just getting under way. It also caused irritation among his fellow European Union leaders, many of whom deplored the sentiment.

French President Jacques Chirac later snubbed Berlusconi by excluding him from a mini-summit he held with the British and German leaders in Ghent in October to discuss the war on terrorism. Normally, Italy -- as one of the "big four" in the EU -- would have been present, and the exclusion was felt keenly in Rome and among the Italian public.

More substantially, there is the affair of the European Airbus A400M military transport aircraft. Defense Minister Antonio Martino told parliament that Italy should withdraw from the project, which he said was a waste of money that Italy does not need. This has brought Rome's relations with its EU partners to an icy state of affairs.

An editorial in the German newspaper "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on 29 October points out why. It says: "This is not just any European effort; the A400M transport is a key project, with which the strategic deficit of the Europeans will be lessened, and its ability to undertake long-distance, independent military operations enhanced."

As Italy was only set to buy 16 out of a total of about 200 planes, its withdrawal should not have a great financial impact on the project. But it sends a bad signal in terms of European defense cooperation.

As British-based independent defense analyst Alexandra Ashbourne put it, "[The Italians] have made quite serious enemies out of their European partner nations. I mean, they were also in talks with the Franco-German-Spanish EADS [defense conglomerate] to form a European military aircraft company, and that seems to have faded from the horizon, as well."

Berlusconi is scheduled to make a final decision on participation in the A400M project, but he is thought not to favor it. He has always been one of Europe's most pro-American leaders, and his government is said to favor instead developing closer links with the U.S. aviation industry. Ashbourne says: "The feeling I got was that the Italian government -- in particular under Berlusconi -- but also Finmeccanica-Alenia, the big [Italian] aerospace company, really wanted to see what they could get out of America. Their interest was: How do we get involved with the [U.S. project for a] joint strike fighter? How can we get Lockheed C-130J transports? They already have some Lockheed transport aircraft and apparently love them."

Berlusconi has never hidden his reservations about closer European integration, and most members of his government share his skepticism.

European Affairs Minister Rocco Buttiglione was quoted as saying recently in "La Repubblica" that the government intends to be "more assertive" in its policies toward the EU.

The feeling of suspicion is mutual. After Berlusconi won spring elections, various EU leaders expressed severe reservations about some of his right-wing political allies and their anti-foreigner views. There were even calls for sanctions.

As analyst Steven Everts of the Center for European Reform in London said: "The relationship between Berlusconi and the EU -- in the sense of the other member states -- has been fraught from the beginning. There has always been a shadow hanging over his prime ministership, in terms of how he would resolve his conflict of interest, et cetera, et cetera. So there is a fraught relationship, for sure."

Everts mentions conflict of interest, a theme that has dogged Berlusconi through his political life. Critics say Berlusconi has not managed to settle potential conflicts between his business interests, particularly in the media, and his job as government leader.

The issue is currently back in the news. The Italian government recently blocked a deal under which an American company would have taken over a unit of state television. It said the offered price was too low. But the leftist opposition notes that, had the deal gone through, it would have meant increased competition for Berlusconi's own television networks. As Everts says, "There's a wide perception in Europe that the proposal [Berlusconi] made to resolve this conflict-of-interest issue -- namely the creation of a [watchdog] commission which will report back to parliament -- is inadequate. It's just not enough. So this will remain, as I say, hanging like a shadow over Italy's standing in the EU."

Considering Berlusconi's coalition has been in power less than six months, the extent of the rift with the EU seems to indicate there is more trouble ahead. And unlike most of its predecessors -- Italy's famously short-lived governments -- the present coalition looks reasonably durable.

At least Tony Blair, the British prime minister who has been so active in the antiterrorism campaign, appears to have offered Berlusconi an olive branch. Blair held late-night talks yesterday in Genoa to personally brief the Italian leader on the results of his Middle East tour.