Berlusconi unveils his 'dream' to parliament

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SILVIO BERLUSCONI, the Prime Minister, told parliament yesterday his right-wing government favoured widening the European Union. But he was non-committal about strengthening it, indicating Italy is shifting closer to the British attitude to Europe.

The successful and immensely wealthy media tycoon promised tax incentives, simpler laws and measures to relaunch the recession-struck economy and stimulate employment, as he outlined his programme to the Senate at the start of the parliamentary confidence debate.

Mr Berlusconi, whose right-wing coalition includes the neo-Fascist-led National Alliance (AN) and the Northern League, is at least eight votes short of a majority in the Senate. The Popular Party (PPI), the remnant of the former Christian Democrat party, now in opposition, is under pressure to lend support. Mr Berlusconi appealed to the PPI to 'respect the need for a government', out of responsibility to the voters.

The Northern League has sought to alarm the PPI, by declaring that there will have to be fresh elections if the confidence vote is lost. The unhappy PPI has said that it will decide on the basis of Mr Berlusconi's programme. 'Il voto-thrilling', as the daily La Repubblica called it, will be held tomorrow.

While the new Foreign Minister, Antonio Martino, was in Brussels, reassuring European colleagues about the AN members of the government, the coalition was being embarrassed at home.

There was an authorised demonstration - the first in Italy - by what Italians call 'Nazi-skin' - skin-headed, jackbooted Nazi or fascist-style thugs. Apparently encouraged by the AN's membership of the government, about 200 marched through Vicenza, in the north, on Sunday. They wore swastikas and black shirts, shouted 'Sieg Heil' and gave the fascist salute.

Horrified protests were directed not just at the thugs, but at the local police chief who had allowed the demonstration. The national police chief, Vincenzo Parisi, and the Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, have banned such demonstrations from now on.

Gianfranco Fini, the AN leader, who has worked hard to give the party respectability, called the thugs 'our worst enemies'. He said they should be put to work in the mines. He denied links with the AN's participation in government. But he had scarcely finished speaking when members of his parliamentary party tabled a move to lift the legal ban on the old Fascist party, though the bill was later withdrawn.

Pino Rauti, a neo-Fascist hardliner, called for a congress of the neo-Fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI). The party joined non-Fascist right-wingers to form the National Alliance without ever dissolving itself. The congress should 'clarify' the MSI's relations with AN, he said.

Foreign policy and assurances of fidelity to the constitution and Italy's international commitments were the main points of Mr Berlusconi's speech. His government 'favours the widening of the Union, also towards Eastern Europe', he said. It also favours an area of free trade with North America and the Pacific countries.

It was for 'attentive reflection' on the Maastricht treaty on European Union. But this should not hold up the process of unification, he said. 'Every delay should be avoided' in the progress toward a common European defence and foreign policy. Mr Berlusconi delivered his 50-minute speech quickly, simply and forcefully. He promised to change Italy's nightmarish bureaucracy into good 'public administration', and to simplify the 'pathologically complex and iniquitous' tax laws. Hospitals must be managed with 'competitive efficiency'. The judiciary would remain independent. Public works projects, frozen following corruption scandals, must be given the go-ahead. Opposition critics complained that it was 'all words and no substance'.

He ended on a rousing note. He spoke of his 'dream' for the country, and his desire to dispel the Italians' poisonous scepticism and restore the 'elan, vitality and creativity which is the genetic inheritance of the Italian peoples'.