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Last Updated: Friday, 4 July, 2003, 12:54 GMT 13:54 UK
Berlusconi promises EU rough ride

By Paola Buonadonna

"The President gravely offended by German MEP"... "Polemics between Italy and Germany".

Silvio Berlusconi
Mr Berlusconi has caused a major crisis in relations with Germany
These are just two of the headlines used by newspapers and television channels controlled by the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to report his now infamous gaffe at the European Parliament this week.

Unfortunately for him, most of the rest of the world media didn't seem to think that a mildly critical question by a Social Democrat MEP warranted comparisons with Nazi concentration guards - especially from a man whose coalition includes post-fascist and racist junior parties.

As a result, on just day two of the Italian semester in charge of EU affairs, the prime minister single-handedly created the worst crisis with Germany (arguably Europe's most powerful country) since Italy switched sides during the war. Heady stuff.

He hoped to closer the issue with a lame expression of regret - not an apology - though the European parliament may now be demanding more.

Inimitable style

But EU observers know that this is just the beginning of a rough six months.

Gianfranco Fini
Mr Fini does not want his polished image ruined by Mr Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi, his critics say, runs his party and his country like one of his many business interests.

He's the boss - not so much a man with a fixed mandate from the people but the CEO who can do and say pretty much what he likes.

So unprepared was he for any kind of criticism - and so unused to it - that the protest in Strasbourg caught him completely by surprise, and he struck back in his inimitable style.

There are two dangers ahead.

While most cameras were trained on Mr Berlusconi's perma-tanned grin an Italian cameraman concentrated on his allies sitting behind him.

The soft-spoken, elegant Deputy PM, Gianfranco Fini, the man who dragged Italy's neo-fascist movement into the respectable mainstream had his head in his hands.

Fractious coalition

Later he issued the strongest criticism of the gaffe to come from an Italian official.

The ruling coalition is rowdy and fractious at the best of times but a man like Fini - who has worked all his life to be able to shake hands with the great and the good - is unlikely to stand by while his senior partner wrecks his image all over again.

Views from Rome streets

Berlusconi has to do his maths and decide how healthy it is to have to count on the flickering loyalty of Umberto Bossi, the veteran foot-in-mouth champion of the Northen League.

The other danger lies at the international level.

Berlusconi's dream to turn Italy from respected but lightweight foreign policy ally into a heavyweight player on the world stage has so far backfired.

If anything his rhetoric - unfiltered by friendly rewrites and flattering camera angle - has covered himself and the country in ridicule.

The EU lies at a critical stage of its development: a new constitution is in the making and 10 more members are about to join. At the same time the European economy is in dire straits and the relationship with the US lies in ruins after the Iraq war.

Berlusconi's famous, mostly self-declared, powers of leadership will be tested (and suffer media scrutiny) like never before.

And the seemingly indifferent electorate who put him there because he promised prosperity at home and glory abroad might be forced to sit up and take notice.

Paola Buonadonna is an Italian journalist living in London

The BBC's Matt Prodger
"Perhaps the intention was to present a united front, but the atmosphere was distinctly flat"

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