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EU Braces for Leadership Changes - 2003-06-30

The European Union is bracing for a potentially difficult time as Italy takes over the bloc's rotating presidency on Tuesday from Greece. Most of the concerns about Italy's presidency center on the country's controversial prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Italy's flamboyant and unpredictable leader has little in common with his fellow European heads of state and government. He is a self-made billionaire who went into politics late in life, setting up his own party and getting elected two years ago as a can-do manager who promised to run Italy like he did his own media empire.

He is also prone to gaffes, as when he asserted in late 2001, just after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, that Western civilization is superior to Islamic civilization. In recent days, the mainstream European press has had a field day casting doubt on Mr. Berlusconi's ability to lead Europe over the next six months. Foremost among the editorial concerns are the Italian leader's legal troubles.

Earlier this month, Mr. Berlusconi, whose party has a majority in parliament, managed to get a law passed that will grant him immunity from prosecution while he is in office. He is charged with bribing judges in the 1980s to influence the sale of a state-owned food conglomerate.

Then there are allegations of conflict of interest against the prime minister. How, ask his critics, can he hold on to his business interests, especially Italy's biggest private television network, and be head of government at the same time?

Also bothering Mr. Berlusconi's European critics are anti-immigrant remarks by one of his ministers and the prime minister's tendency to do things his own way, even if that contravenes EU policy.

The latest example of that was Mr. Berlusconi's recent visit to the Middle East during which he met only with Israel's prime minister, but flouted an EU agreement to maintain contacts with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

One member of the European Parliament, liberal democrat Graham Watson, even called into question whether Italy would be accepted into the European Union if it were a candidate for membership today. But Italians, including some members of the opposition, have rallied around the prime minister, saying what is at stake during Italy's EU presidency is the image of Italy itself.

That is the view of Franco Venturini, a commentator for the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, who says it is now time to move on and let Mr. Berlusconi both govern at home and preside over the European Union in the crucial months ahead. "The problem now is really what he will do with his government, both in domestic terms and in international terms, but in concrete terms mainly," he said. "We are not in the phase of saying he is nice or not nice or you like his style or you do not like his style. Now he has to deliver. This is his problem and our problem."

Italy faces a busy six months, with a tight timetable to wrap up negotiations on the EU's first constitution and ambitious schemes to kick-start the EU economy by investing billions of dollars in infrastructure projects. Mr. Venturini says Mr. Berlusconi is also determined to patch up the EU's relations with the United States.

"Berlusconi is a very pro-American leader," he said. "During the Iraq war, before and after, there have been disagreements between Americans and Europeans, and there is a strong political will now to mend fences with America."

But while Mr. Berlusconi focuses on European issues, members of the opposition say they will keep pressure on him at home. Giovanna Melandri, an opposition legislator, says she, for one, will continue to contest the immunity law and continue to criticize what she sees as the prime minister's conflict of interest.

"The very recent immunity law that has been approved by parliament, by Berlusconi's majority, is totally unconstitutional," she said. "And we have to defend a pluralistic approach to media, and we have to resolve the issue of conflict of interest."

A Milan court Monday questioned the legality of the immunity granted to the prime minister and has asked Italy's supreme court to investigate the measure.

In Brussels, EU officials are wondering how the conservative Mr. Berlusconi, as president of the European Council of Ministers, will get along with Social Democrat Romano Prodi, who presides over the European Commission, which runs the union's day to day affairs.

The two men are past, and probably future, political rivals, and they have a track record of personal animosity that goes beyond simple ideology. Their styles are different, too. Mr. Prodi is a mild-mannered and reflective academic. Mr. Berlusconi is a fast-talking, self-confident entrepreneur.

The Italian and European media will be watching closely for any sign of a clash in the months ahead.