Berlusconi flees European controversies with a visit to Bush's ranch

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The Independent US

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has plenty of reasons to escape European shores this summer as the controversy over his recent gibe comparing a German MEP to a Nazi concentration camp collaborator refuses to die.

And so it was yesterday that he was flying far away - to Texas. The visit was to be a brief one, but he was assured a warm welcome. His destination was a ranch in Crawford, Texas and the host was a friend, both personally and politically - the President of the United States, George Bush.

Expect big smiles andcowboy hats when they stand before the microphones today after discussing topics including Iraq, peace in the Middle East and the war on terrorism.

Such is the antipathy toward Mr Berlusconi in many European countries that officials in Rome stressed that he was travelling to Texas in his capacity as the Italian Prime Minister, not as the holder of the rotating European Presidency.

Yet nobody doubts that he aspires to be a peace-maker between the EU and the United States at a time when transatlantic ties are bruised by disagreements on Iraq. It is a role that critics in other European capitals may resent. Franco Frattini, Italy's Foreign Minister, said: "It's a help and a contribution that is exclusively positive and works toward a goal that everyone, without exception, considers a priority."

The visit is a reward for backing the Iraq campaign, in the face of domestic opposition as well as warnings from Pope John Paul II. He is one of few world leaders to have been invited to see Mr Bush both at his Texas home and at the Camp David retreat in Maryland.

And Mr Bush is unlikely to put much store in the furore stirred by Mr Berlusconi's Nazi remark, made just two days into Italy's EU presidency. If there is any other leader with a reputation for slips of the tongue, it is Mr Bush.

VISITORS TO THE RANCH

Welcome: Tony Blair; Junichiro Koizumi, Japanese Prime Minister; Vladimir Putin, President of Russia; Jiang Zemin, former Chinese president; Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia; John Howard, Australian Prime Minister; Jose Maria Aznar, Spanish Prime Minister

Not welcome: President Jacques Chirac of France; Gerhard Schröder, German Chancellor; Jean Chrétien, Canadian Prime Minister

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