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EU: Berlusconi Outlines Agenda For Europe's Presidency

As Italy takes over the EU presidency from Greece, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi spoke to the European Parliament and outlined the country's agenda for the presidency.

Brussels, 2 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi this morning outlined Italy's agenda for its European Union presidency over the next six months.

Italy assumed the presidency from Greece yesterday, and Berlusconi spoke today to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Berlusconi said Italy's priorities will be to ensure a quick conclusion to the negotiations for an EU constitution, jump-start the bloc's ailing economy, and make the EU an "authoritative" global figure.

Berlusconi also discussed the integration of new member countries.

"At the present stage, between the signing and the entering into force of the accession treaties, we will try to ensure the full participation of the 10 new member states in the work of [the EU's] Council [of Ministers]," he said. "We will try to make it easier for them to be completely integrated into the institutional mechanisms of the European Union. At the same time, we will seek to have a road map by December for Bulgaria and Romania, opening the door for the accession of these two future member states by 2007."

In practical terms, however, there is little Italy can do to further improve the participation of the 10 acceding countries in EU deliberations. All 10 have been able to follow most EU meetings as observers since 16 April when they signed the accession treaties. There are some restrictions -- for example, enlargement-related issues remain out of bounds for the acceding states -- but these policies will remain in place until full accession on 1 May 2004.

Candidate diplomats in Brussels have told RFE/RL their main problem is lack of manpower to cope with the mushrooming demand for their presence.

Road maps for Bulgaria and Romania are also more of a formality, given that member states agree both countries can join some time in 2007, provided they meet the EU's membership criteria.

Turkey, however, faces a setback after Italy's European affairs minister said earlier this week the country is not ready for the EU.

Italy also is offering the five western Balkan states closer ties, but EU member states have made it clear there will be no major increases in aid money until the end of 2006, when the EU's current budget period ends. In addition, EU governments have regularly called for more political, economic, and judicial reforms in the region before the membership prospects being held out can materialize.

Berlusconi today again floated a controversial plan to boost the EU economy by allowing member states to use European Investment Bank (EIB) loans for ambitious infrastructure projects. Some observers have voiced fears that an increased loan burden could further undermine the ailing Stability and Growth Pact that underlines the euro. EU finance ministers are due to discuss the proposal on 15-16 July.

Berlusconi also said Italy is seeking to make Europe a "strong, authoritative figure" globally. Italy's official work program says the EU must be able to "speak with one voice" and -- significantly -- "intervene in the main crisis areas of the planet."

Berlusconi today outlined a bold vision of the EU's future prowess.

"Europe can overcome the 'Hamlet Syndrome'" of indecision, he said. "It can decide to have no doubts and become an active player on the world stage. It can endow itself with the diplomatic, economic, and military instruments that are necessary so that it can become a very convincing world player without calling into question either its autonomy and without turning its back on its roots and its belief in freedom, which it has defended for many years within the Western alliance."

All this, Berlusconi said, must occur in "fruitful" cooperation with the United States.

Italy is keen to enhance the EU's role in the Middle East, the wider Mediterranean region, and "inject more specific content" into its relations with Israel and Russia.

Italy's official work program also says the EU must play a "front-line" role in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Finally, Berlusconi committed his presidency to a quick completion of the constitutional talks scheduled to start among member states' governments in October. Although the talks will be concluded under the forthcoming Irish presidency sometime next spring, Italy has already secured itself the right to have the eventual constitutional treaty signed in Rome.