- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

PARIS — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose nation takes over the European Union presidency today, told France that the union should complement the United States, not compete with it.

Mr. Berlusconi made his remarks yesterday 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 prime minister 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 concerned that the fighting talk that’s become a Berlusconi trademark won’t spill into his relations with his partner in running EU business — former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

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

Mr. Berlusconi, a billionaire media tycoon, soccer-team owner and now EU chief, is provoking howls of outrage from headline writers around the continent as Italy assumes the six-month rotating EU presidency.

“Europe united in disgust as Berlusconi takes EU throne,” ran a page-topping banner yesterday 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 Mr. Berlusconi seated on a golden throne.

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

However, judges trying Mr. Berlusconi’s case asked Italy’s Supreme Court yesterday to decide whether the immunity law is constitutional.

While an avalanche of negative media comment has focused on Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on a recent Middle East visit; and by pushing to end an arms embargo on Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya.

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