Berlusconi gets his way in bitter fight over EU forum

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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, chalked up the first victory of his new, aggressive stance towards the EU yesterday, winning his battle to get Gianfranco Fini, leader of the post-fascist National Alliance party, onto a high-level committee which will help shape the future of Europe.

Mr Berlusconi, who is foreign minister as well as prime minister at present, won the right to nominate Mr Fini during his first visit to a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels yesterday.

Mr Fini, Italy's deputy prime minister, once praised Benito Mussolini as the greatest Italian statesman of the 20th century – a comment he has now retracted.

Critics are queasy about the message sent by his presence on the convention on the future of Europe. However, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, which had led the opposition to Mr Berlusconi's choice, softened their position before an anticipated clash. One official said the deal had been done "in the margins" of yesterday's meeting without voices raised.

In the end diplomatic objections were technical, based on the fact the convention already has an Italian vice president, Giuliano Amato, a former prime minister. But Berlusconi prevailed, arguing Amato, a member of the opposition, could not count as a government representative.

Rome will now get an extra seat at the table but, although the decision can be presented in Italy as a victory for Mr Berlusconi, it brings more controversy to the convention whose inception has been overshadowed by disputes over salaries and funding.

At last month's Laeken summit EU leaders agreed to set up the convention, led by the former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Most attention so far has focused on the terms and conditions offered to Mr Giscard, following reports he was to be paid €20,000 (£12,000) a month. Last week it was made clear Mr Giscard will not be paid for his work although he will be entitled to expenses to cover travel and accommodation for himself and his bodyguard, probably amounting to €11,000 a month.

Each government was entitled to nominate one representative to the 110-strong convention made up mainly of national and European parliamentarians and representatives from applicant countries to the EU.

The convention's budget for this year is expected to be €10m of which around €6m is accounted for in salaries of officials and translators and other services "in kind". Of the remaining €4m, €2.6m will be made available by the European Commission.

Despite the adverse publicity for the convention its work is likely to be important in drawing up options for EU heads of government to re-write the EU treaty in 2004.