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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 July, 2003, 16:26 GMT 17:26 UK
Berlusconi fights to save coalition
Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi took a day off at the seaside as squabbles raged
Italy's coalition was deeply divided on Friday as a row over the economy and other key policies showed no sign of healing.

Northern League leader Umberto Bossi, who is threatening to pull out of the coalition, stayed away from Friday's cabinet session, and one report said the meeting ended in a shouting match between two other rival coalition partners.

Another minister on his way to the meeting, Christian Democrat Rocco Buttiglione, said there was no possibility of agreement on a draft budget which is among the issues dividing the parties.

Prime Minister Berlusconi is working to restore serenity, certain that in the end responsibility and reason will prevail
Paolo Bonaiuti
Berlusconi spokesman

Labour Minister Roberto Maroni said Mr Berlusconi might have to call a coalition summit over the weekend.

The partners are split on several policies, including immigration, devolution and the economy.

Further pressure on Mr Berlusconi's government has come amid the international furore over comments by him and his tourism minister about Germans.

A spokesman for Mr Berlusconi confirmed on Thursday that the PM was working to bring peace among his bickering partners.

This ruling coalition has collapsed
Piero Fassino
Democrats of the Left leader
"Prime Minister Berlusconi is working to restore serenity, certain that in the end responsibility and reason will prevail," his official spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti, said after a day of emergency meetings and telephone conversations.

An attempt earlier this week to break the economic stalemate with a new government body failed, when several ministers announced they would boycott it.

The roots of the cabinet crisis lie in recent local elections, when parties began blaming each other for their poor performances.

Mr Bossi was among the most vocal critics, blaming other parties for sabotaging the Northern League's election chances, and warning that he would abandon the coalition unless immigration and devolution reforms were speeded up.

If captain Berlusconi doesn't set the course, the ship will crash against the rocks
Umberto Bossi
Northern League leader
"If captain Berlusconi doesn't set the course, the ship will crash against the rocks," Mr Bossi told the Corriere della Sera newspaper on Thursday.

Mr Berlusconi's "Nazi" attack also split the cabinet. Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini of the far-right National Alliance and centrist leader Marco Follini publicly said they disagreed with Mr Berlusconi's conduct.

The affair also caused international embarrassment for Italy at the start of its six-month presidency of the European Union.

The Northern League's threats to quit are being taken particularly seriously as in 1994 the party brought down Mr Berlusconi's first government by walking out.

Attacks traded

But Friday's cabinet shouting match was reportedly between two other partners - Mr Fini and economy minister Giulio Tremonti of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.

The basic problem is that the League has shown that it has no coalition spirit
Gianfranco Fini
National Alliance
Mr Fini earlier launched his own attack on the Northern League in Friday's Corriere della Sera edition.

"The basic problem is that the League has shown that it has no coalition spirit," he said, urging the prime minister to "show his leadership's worth" and bring Mr Bossi to heel.

"For a long time now (the League's) intemperance and its threats have come very close to the boundary of defency and of tolerability," he said.

Earlier this week Mr Berlusconi went to the southern resort of Positano while the infighting raged in Rome.

"I'm allowing the boys to let off some steam," Mr Berlusconi said.

As the opposition tried to maximise the coalition's crisis, one leader said the government was no longer functioning effectively.

"This ruling coalition has collapsed," said Democrats of the Left leader Piero Fassino said. "They have a 100-seat margin in parliament and, this notwithstanding, they are in this disastrous condition. They must say how they intend to keep governing the country."


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