Berlusconi puts Bonn's doubters on their guard

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The Independent Online
SILVIO BERLUSCONI, the Italian Prime Minister, paid a flying visit to Bonn yesterday, where he was received with full military honours in spite of considerable embarrassment.

It was the Italian leader's first foreign visit and it caused controversy in Bonn because of the presence of extreme right-wing ministers in Mr Berlusconi's government - although he denied that the 'neo-Fascist' label was appropriate. There was no joint press conference with Chancellor Helmut Kohl after the talks ended. The tone of the reception was flagged in yesterday's Die Welt as 'not unfriendly but cool and to the point'.

The opposition Greens had called in vain for a special parliamentary debate on the visit. There was unhappiness that Mr Berlusconi chose Germany for his first international port of call.

In an interview in Bild newspaper yesterday, the man Bild described as 'the new strong man of Europe' spoke of the 'special relationship' and the 'deep connections' between Germany and Italy. He did not mention the most notorious phase of this special relationship during the Second World War, but spoke instead of the 'victory over Communism'.

The opposition objected to this apparent reminder of old alliances. Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, deputy leader of the Social Democrats, said it was regrettable that Mr Kohl had 'missed an important opportunity' to emphasise 'the concerns of democratic Germany'.

Some Christian Democrats were worried. Michel Friedman, of the Central Council of Jews, who has been proposed as a member of the collective leadership of the Christian Democrats, said that 'it should be made clear that (the presence of neo-Fascists) is regrettable and a cause for concern'.

Mr Berlusconi pleaded not guilty. 'There are no neo-Fascists in my government,' he said. 'The ministers of the National Alliance have nothing to do with fascism.'

A German government declaration talked of friendly co-operation with Italy. It emphasised agreement on international policy - including the need to help the reformers in Moscow. Dieter Vogel, the government spokesman, said that the two leaders had agreed to 'work together intensively' during the German presidency of the European Union, which begins in two weeks.

Germany has declared already that it will co-operate with France and Spain on the future planning of the EU presidency, which would cover the next 18 months. If Italy is brought in, then it would give a span of two years.

In an effort to shake off hostile views, Mr Berlusconi yesterday emphasised: 'Our two powers (Germany and Italy) represent the values of freedom and tolerance and mutual respect. We're against war and any form of intolerance, such as anti-Semitism.'

After his talks with Mr Kohl, he said that fascism had been 'condemned and buried by history'.

Meanwhile, the issue was left open whether Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia should be allowed to join the European People's Party bloc in the European parliament, which groups together Europe's Christian Democratic parties. Critics had called on Mr Kohl to oppose this request. Mr Friedman argued against any contact with the extreme right.

Mr Kohl's reaction to Mr Berlusconi's visit has been ambivalent. He does not wish to be identified as Mr Berlusconi's political bosom friend. At the same time, he is eager to keep Italy bound into a united Europe.

One senior Christian Democrat suggested yesterday that it was necessary to be 'careful' with Mr Berlusconi, but that the question of neo-Fascists in the government might not be a problem in the longer term. It was 'doubtful', he suggested, that Mr Berlusconi's existing coalition would survive.

There is a huge difference in political attitudes between Germany and Italy which made yesterday's visit especially complicated. German politicians from all main parties refer regularly to the enormity of Nazi crimes. The horrors of fascism are taken for granted, and, at the same time, are constantly highlighted.

In Italy, by contrast, as one Italian observer noted yesterday, 'Many people have never really accepted how bad things were.'

Leading article, page 17

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