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Berlusconi Takes Foreign Relations Portfolio

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has taken on the job of foreign minister following the resignation of Renato Ruggiero. After being sworn in as interim foreign minister late on Sunday, Mr. Berlusconi declared he remained committed to closer European integration.

Prime Minister Berlusconi decided to take the foreign portfolio in his government following the resignation of Renato Ruggiero on Saturday. The foreign minister resigned after disagreements with other government members over Italy's policies toward the European Union.

Mr. Ruggiero last week publicly criticized fellow cabinet members for expressing negative attitudes toward the European Union and skepticism about the new single currency, the euro. He said the situation made him "sad," adding that he was "extremely worried."

Mr. Berlusconi, displeased with the comments, said he alone was in charge of Italy's foreign policy, and that Mr. Ruggiero was merely a "technocrat" carrying out his policies. The prime minister said he found the foreign minister's doubts about the Italian government's pro-European commitment "intolerable," and his continued presence in the government "unsustainable."

Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi swore in Mr. Berlusconi as interim foreign minister late Sunday night. In comments to a leading Italian daily, Mr. Berlusconi said he would hold on to the foreign portfolio for six months.

After being sworn in, the prime minister declared that the departure of Renato Ruggiero would not change Italy's commitment to Europe.

The policy of the foreign ministry, he said, will be the policy of this government, a policy that is convincingly and intrinsically European.

Stating that he would guarantee continuity in Italian policy toward the European Union, Mr. Berlusconi added that "Europe for us is an ideal, an ambition, a desire and a necessity, because Europe has given us more than half a century of security, wealth, democracy and peace."

But opposition parties voiced their concern over Mr. Ruggiero's departure, and called on the prime minister to address parliament on the government's position toward Europe.

Several senior European politicians have voiced regret over Mr. Ruggiero's departure. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer described Mr. Ruggiero as a convinced European, while his French counterpart, Hubert Vedrine, said he enjoyed considerable esteem within the European Union.

Mr. Berlusconi has made clear that a distinction should be made between Italy's pro-European stance and the right to defend Italy's interests. Recent disagreements between Italy and Europe have included the European-wide arrest warrant, a decision on the location of a European food agency, and Italy's involvement in a new military transport plane to be built by Airbus. Italy's deputy prime minister, Gianfranco Fini, declared last month: "We remain totally committed in Europe, but we also reserve our right to defend our interests, just as the French and Germans and the British do."