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Saturday, 12 January, 2002, 02:19 GMT
Berlusconi defends his EU record
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, left, greets Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French President
The former president wanted clarification from Italy
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has rebuffed critics of his European policy in his debut appearance as the country's new foreign minister.

We believe in a strong Europe that can express itself on the world scene with one voice

Silvio Berlusconi
Italian Prime Minister
Mr Berlusconi took over the foreign affairs portfolio when his pro-European Foreign Minister, Renato Ruggiero, resigned earlier this month - after condemning the euroscepticism of some of his cabinet colleagues.

The former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing - who currently heads a convention charting the EU's future - told the French daily Le Monde ahead of a meeting in Rome that he was looking for "clarification" on Italy's position towards the development of the bloc.

He said after his talks with Mr Berlusconi that he was satisfied with his findings.

"I have carefully looked at all his declarations and they all confirm that he intends to contribute positively to the success of the convention," he told a news conference.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique (l) shakes hands with Silvio Berlusconi
Spain and Italy: All smiles for the camera

The Spanish foreign minister Josep Pique, whose country now holds the EU's rotating presidency, also gave the Italian leader his backing after a week of controversy over Mr Berlusconi's commitment to EU integration.

Mr Pique said he had "agreed widely" with Mr Berlusconi after their talks in Rome.

'Ancient civilisation'

In a letter written to Le Monde and other remarks made before his meetings, Mr Berlusconi defended himself against allegations of anti-European sentiment, but maintained that Italy had the right to pursue its own national interests.

"If you look at the history of our country, you will not find a country that is more pro-European," he said. "Italy is not only a founder member of the European communities: it is also one of the most populated and prosperous members, with a civilisation among the most ancient."

Ex-Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero
Mr Ruggiero was widely embraced by Europe
"It is therefore normal that the Italian government wants to act in a way that our constitutional and political values and also our fundamental economic interests are adequately taken account of."

Mr Berlusconi, who intends to hold the post of foreign minister for at least six months, has already created some friction within EU circles in his role as prime minister.

He attempted unsuccessfully to block a European-wide arrest warrant, one of the cornerstones of an EU anti-terrorism package, and at the December Laeken summit he vetoed a map of new sites for EU institutions because ham capital Parma was passed over for housing a new food agency.

Italy is still blocking agreement on the site.

Correspondents say that even members of Mr Berlusconi's government worry that the double role will prove too much for him, and hope that a suitable replacement will soon be found.

But on his first day in the new post on Wednesday, he declared he was the "right man in the right job", and that he was enjoying himself.

The BBC's Justin Webb
"Italy's love affair with Europe appears to have ended as the euro marriage vows were being read"
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