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Europe

Berlusconi Tries to Shake off “Eurosceptic” Image

Following the exit of the pro-European Foreign Minister Ruggiero, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi struggles to reinforce Italy’s pro-Europe commitment.

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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has taken over the Foreign Ministry portfolio, after the shock resignation of his pro-European foreign minister, Renato Ruggiero over the weekend.

The Italian Premier is now at pains to rectify his image as a anti-European and reassure sceptics at home and abroad that his government is committed to a strong Europe.

Damage-control exercise?

He told Corriere della Sera newspaper, he expected to retain the foreign ministry portfolio at least until June and said nothing would change in Italy's pro-Europe position.

"We are firmly convinced that the future of our country lies in a Europe that is stronger and knows how to speak with one voice and knows how to follow up economic integration with political integration, with a new constitution," he said.

A European constitution was "indispensable for (European Union) enlargement to the east and its own foreign policy and security policy".

Ruggiero's exit exposes rifts in cabinet

Mr Ruggiero, unhappy at Italy’s lukewarm response to the euro, was infuriated by remarks last week from a trio of Italian ministers belittling the euro currency after its launch on January 1 and openly questioning its worth. He resigned shortly afterwards.

Berlusconi called his foreign minister "just a technocrat" and said that he and Ruggiero had to part ways because the minister had voiced consistent doubts over the government’s commitment to Europe.

"It was no longer possible for us to go forward like this, with us being forced to have our Europeanism tested every day," he said.

Italy not well equipped for euro

The present political crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time for Italy – Italy is still experiencing difficulties over the roll-out of the euro.

Italian transactions in the euro notes and coins continues to be more sluggish than in other European Union states. A week after the launch of the common currency, Italians still conduct only 10 percent of their financial transactions in euro.

Italy was also the only country adopting the new currency that did not organise celebrations for the advent of the euro in the new year.

One Italian Minster had said, he "couldn’t care a hoot" about the single currency, while others have questioned further European integration.

European leaders worried about Ruggiero's departure

The departure of the most respected and pro-European Minster in Berlusconi’s centre-right government has sent political shock waves around Europe.

German Foreign Minster Joschka Fischer described Mr Ruggiero as a convinced European, while his French counterpart Hubert Vedrine said he enjoyed considerable esteem within the European Union.

Belgium warned that anti-European elements were winning the upper hand in Berlusconi's cabinet.

France's finance minister called on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Monday to clarify his government's commitment to the European Union.

Speaking on French radio, Finance Minister Laurent Fabius said Berlusconi needed to spell out Italy's European policy after the resignation at the weekend of his pro-European foreign minister Renato Ruggiero.

"Italy is one of the pillars of Europe and one could be quite worried," Fabius said. "So, I think there is a need for a clarification at the level of the heads of government."

Criticism at home

At home, Italy’s senior business figure, Gianni Agnelli told a newspaper that "Mr Ruggiero’s exit will hurt the government much more than it realises. (....) Let's be clear about this. Ruggiero made all the others palatable, in European terms".

Berlusconi's coalition contains a number of far-right and even xenophobic elements that are eyed with suspicion by some of Italy's allies.

Italy's opposition centre-left blasted Berlusconi, saying Ruggiero's departure would hurt the country's image abroad. One leftist daily accused Berlusconi of wanting to set up his own "regime" by taking on the Foreign Ministry.

Italy's future role in the EU

Rome will hold the rotating EU presidency in the second half of 2003, when important decisions are likely to made about European reform and expansion eastwards.

Analysts now fear that Italy with its "eurosceptic" attitude might thwart important changes.

Since Berlusconi's victory in a general election last May, Italy has gradually abandoned its traditional, support of EU policy-making and sought instead to be more assertive in its dealings with Brussels.