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Europe

Italy's Berlusconi Causes Commotion

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is under increasing pressure. Italy's judiciary says the government is undermining their independence. Italy's European partners question Berlusconi's dedication to EU principles.

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Silvio Berlusconi was sworn in as Prime Minister last summer

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has had run-ins with the judiciary before. The billionaire is currently involved in three trials. He has been accused of large-scale corruption and false accounting.

But these days, Berlusconi has to fight yet another judicial battle. He has enraged Italian magistrates and law professionals with his plans to reform the country's clunky judicial sector.

The government criticizes that many court cases in Italy just go on for too long and cost too much. It wants to save money by reducing police escorts for judges working on Mafia corruption cases.

Meddling in the judiciary

But many magistrates say the government plans are undermining the judiciary's independence -- especially in cases involving Berlusconi and his giant business empire.

This weekend, hundreds of magistrates took to the streets in a nationwide protest.

Milan's prosecutor-general Francesco Saverio Borrelli urged magistrates to resist

"outside intervention and sabotage". In a scathing speech, he told thousands of supporters to "Resist, resist, resist."

Borrelli, who was a leading prosecutor in Italy's anti-Mafia and anti-corruption investigations of the 1990s, criticized Berlusconi's plans to reduce police escorts for anti-Mafia judges.

As a result, Italy's interior minister on Sunday announced he was suing Borrelli. In a newspaper interview, the minister said that Borrelli's outbursts represented a veritable rebellion that could not be accepted and put up with.

Politically motivated?

The magistrates' protest is backed by Italy's opposition parties. The opposition has long accused Berlusconi's government of meddling in the judiciary to protect the Prime Minister.

Berlusconi and associates in his giant business empire have been accused of bribing judges in the 1980s. He is also involved in two other trials over the irregular transfer of a soccer player to his club and for false accounting.

Berlusconi has denied all charges, saying they are politically motivated.

Former Italian Prime Minister Francesco Cossiga said if Berlusconi were found guilty

in any of the trials where he is accused, this would be disastrous for Italy's reputation, and he should step down.

In a move that got the opposition's alarm-bells ringing, Italy's cabinet last week gave its stamp of approval to a controversial law which would largely decriminalize false accounting.

Critics say the bill was designed to help Berlusconi get out of trouble. The government, however, claims the new regulations would bring Italy into line with the sort of accounting norms in force in the United States.

Italy's commitment to Europe

Berlusconi isn't only under pressure at home. Last week, he raised some eyebrows in Europe when he took personal control of the Foreign Ministry in a row over EU policy.

Berlusconi took over the Foreign Ministry for six months after the country's pro-European foreign minister Renato Ruggiero threw in the towel. Ruggiero resigned because Berlusconi had publicly put him down.

Many senior EU politicians were alarmed by the abrupt departure of the widely respected Ruggiero.

Mending the pieces of broken glass

Berlusconi spent much of last week trying to reassure Italy's international allies that the country was still backing closer European integration.

Berlusconi tried to counteract their fears by expressing his "superior faith in, and passion for, Europe."

Top European officials met with Berlusconi to talk about the issue on Friday. After the meeting, they said they saw eye-to-eye with Berlusconi on many EU issues.

They pointed out that there was no need to worry Rome was drifting from the path of EU integration.

The Italian Prime Minister also said that the country was looking forward with pride to holding the rotating EU presidency in the second half of 2003.

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