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EU: Ruggiero Departure Further Strains Italy's Ties With Union

The sudden resignation over the weekend of Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero has brought new strains to the relationship between Rome and the European Union. Ruggiero, an internationally respected Europhile, stepped down in protest at the cold reception given the new euro currency by some of his Euroskeptic cabinet colleagues. His departure would seem to give the upper hand in the conservative government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to those who oppose greater European integration.

Prague, 7 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Italy and its place in the European Union are back in the news again with the resignation over the weekend of Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero. Ruggiero, a liberal politician who enjoys high standing internationally, left the center-right government in anger that three of his cabinet colleagues had "belittled" the euro common currency. The euro is just now being introduced into 12 euro-zone countries, including Italy.

Ruggiero's departure further estranges Rome from Brussels. Since the center-right coalition of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi came to power last spring, there have been a series of incidents that have strained the ties between Italy and its Union partners. The presence of the strongly pro-European Ruggiero in the government acted as a kind of guarantee that Italy would not stray too far towards Euroskepticism. But now he is gone, and Italy's future direction is unclear.

Commentator Alexandra Bajka of Rome radio station RMF FM says the unexpected departure of Ruggiero is worrying some Italians: "They are confused, because Ruggiero was the most famous personality in the Berlusconi cabinet. People liked him very much. He was famous as the [one-time] president of the Fiat [car] group, and famous as the head of the World Trade Organization. So people are quite confused [at his departure], and Italians who do not like Berlusconi are saying that Berlusconi did just what they thought he would do, namely eliminate anybody who is even a little bit opposed to him."

Berlusconi yesterday took over the job of foreign minister himself, on an interim basis, and pledged to continue a policy of closer integration with Europe, which he said had produced 50 years of security and prosperity in Italy. He said: "The policy of this government will be convincingly and intrinsically pro-European. I believe that the feeling I have had several times sitting at the table with the other European prime ministers, is that our country is more pro-European than all the others."

But despite his words, the billionaire businessman has never been seen as particularly enthusiastic personally to European integration, and it's unclear whether he has taken the Foreign Ministry post himself to prevent it falling in the hands of the Euroskeptics in his cabinet, or because he himself wants to steer a course more independent of Europe.

Berlusconi is accustomed to doing what he wants without explanation in his business empire, and commentator Bajka notes he has simply transferred this autocratic style into politics.

"He feels he is the master of Italy. He feels like he is the boss of his business holdings, of his business group, [and] he now feels he is the boss in Italy [in the same way]."

Another senior commentator, Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger, the foreign editor of the German newspaper "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," says the row over the Italian ministers' attitude to the euro -- spurred by comments like those from Italy's Defense Minister Antonio Martino, who said the euro had lost value against not only the dollar, but potatoes in Macao as well -- is quite a serious one.

"[I recall] Italy had long fought to be included in the euro project. They wanted to be part of it, and when doubts were raised -- for instance, in Germany -- about whether Italy could control its budget deficit well enough, that was seen [in Rome] as anti-Italian. [And now], just at this very moment, when the euro is introduced and when trust in the new currency must be built up by the governments and central banks, along come [ministers from] a key European country and ridicule the euro in a way that not even a Thatcher government has done -- that doesn't go over well."

Frankenberger says the sneering of the Italian ministers will have "automatic" consequences, in so far as it will help shape the attitude of Italian industry to the new currency, given that businessmen are close watchers of the government's mood.

Frankenberger also calls the decision last autumn of the Italians to withdraw from the European military aircraft project a mistake of strategic proportions. Italy's retreat from the European plan -- involving the purchase of some 200 Airbus transport aircraft that was meant to substantially boost the EU's ability to undertake long-distance, independent military operations -- was widely seen as a slap in the face of EU advocates. As to Berlusconi's recent temporary stand against a Europe-wide common arrest warrant, Frankenberger says that at least had some justification.

"[One can say] there exist justified objections to the European arrest warrant, but at the same time, one cannot escape the suspicion that this has something to do with the personal vulnerability of people in the [Italian] government."

That's a reference to the various cases of fraud and corruption involving Berlusconi and his companies at home or abroad.

Frankenberger cautions, however, against over-dramatizing the situation, saying the Berlusconi team must be judged by what it does, not what it says. He says there should be no repeat of the mistaken, hasty action by the Union partners in imposing a freeze on Austria when the far-rightist party of Joerg Haider came to power.

Meanwhile in Brussels, European Commission spokesman Jonathan Faull today gave Rome a gentle remainder of its importance in the Union. He said at a press conference: "The success of modern Italy is closely linked to the success of the European Union. Italy is an important founding country and an important member state of our Union. There is no doubt that the Italian people are committed to being part of the European Union. Europe needs Italy as Italy needs Europe."

Judging by the events of the nine months since Berlusconi took office, that bond is likely to be tested more than once in the next several years.