- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2002

From combined dispatches
ROME Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi set out his government's tough new line on European integration in a strongly worded speech to Parliament yesterday, saying Rome would bow to no one.
"Nobody, I repeat nobody, can think they can put us under their control, or worse, still treat us as a subject with limited sovereignty," said Mr. Berlusconi, emphasizing he would be a more demanding partner in Europe than Renato Ruggiero, the pro-Europe foreign minister he removed last week.
He said Italy would vigorously defend its interests while playing its full role at the heart of the 15-member European Union, making its voice heard in Brussels "on an equal footing" with its partners.
The speech, coming just as Europe is celebrating a historic switch to its new currency, adds fuel to an awkward political fuss.
First there was the resignation of Mr. Ruggiero, complaining that Mr. Berlusconi had belittled the Jan. 1 currency change, in which Italy gave up the lira.
Then, as Mr. Berlusconi took over as foreign minister temporarily, he disclosed that Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the once neo-fascist National Alliance party, was among the candidates for the job.
Mr. Fini is not anti-Europe, and he already serves as deputy premier. But as foreign minister he would be fronting Italy's dealings with its European partners, and no one has forgotten that he once referred to fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as the "great statesman" of the last century.
The European press as well as several European leaders, including the French finance minister, the Belgian foreign minister and an Italian European Union (EU) commissioner has demanded that Mr. Berlusconi clarify his policy toward Europe.
Political analysts said the criticism was exaggerated and unfair, considering the issue was an internal matter and that few other European leaders would be subject to such a public outcry. Mr. Fini himself has moderated his public stance on Mussolini.
Nonetheless, Italians are mindful that when another EU member, Austria, took members of the nationalist right into its government two years ago, it was punished with political sanctions by the European Union. The analysts say Mr. Berlusconi still has some explaining to do.
"Berlusconi presented himself to the country as the guarantor of its foreign policy," commentator Sergio Romano wrote in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera. "Let him tell us what European policy he intends to guarantee."
The outcry began with the resignation of Mr. Ruggiero, a champion of European unity, who complained in a newspaper interview of months of disputes with his government over European policy.
Mr. Berlusconi tried to assure European leaders that he was as good a European as anyone else. "We are firmly convinced the future of our country is in a stronger Europe," he said at the time.
But diplomatic tiffs and gaffes have overshadowed much of his current 8-month-old administration.
There was his comment that Western civilization was "superior" to that of Islam, which came as the United States was trying to assure Muslims that the war in Afghanistan was not a war on Islam.

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