In an extraordinary breach of diplomatic etiquette, Anna Lindh, the Swedish Foreign Minister, said yesterday that she did not believe Italy had "good chances" of concluding a new European constitution, the main challenge of its turn at the rotating European presidency.
"I don't think Italy has good chances of finishing these government negotiations," she told Swedish radio, "because it requires a wide circle of political contacts, wide opportunities for compromise and a good political feeling and support in other countries to carry out this kind of job.
"I think it is harder for a government like [Silvio] Berlusconi's to successfully close this type of incredibly difficult task. This is a government that has a somewhat special role." When asked to explain what she meant by the word "special", she said it was a government "that isn't very deeply rooted in the rest of Europe".
The harsh remarks came one day before Mr Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, is scheduled to meet Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, and Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission (and Mr Berlusconi's chief political rival at home) for a fence-mending session. The three men are due to attend a performance of Bizet's Carmen in Verona.
On 4 October, Italy will host negotiations with all 15 EU member states to iron out differences on a new constitution for Europe intended to streamline its practices and institutions in advance of the arrival of 10 new members next year. But serious differences remain on basic questions such as taxes, foreign policy and immigration.
Reaching agreement on the constitution is the biggest challenge facing Mr Berlusconi during Italy's presidency. He hopes to finalise discussions by the end of the year, so that a "Treaty of Rome" can be signed in the Italian capital at a grand ceremony next spring.
But Italy's turn at the presidency got off to the worst possible start last month when Mr Berlusconi, who has a track record of making gaffes, compared a German MEP, Martin Schulz, who had just made a speech sharply critical of him, to a guard in a Nazi concentration camp.
Mr Berlusconi was forced to grovel on the telephone to Mr Schröder, though he denied later that he had apologised. When a minister in Mr Berlusconi's government compounded the offence by writing racist comments about German tourists in a newspaper, Mr Schröder cancelled his regular Italian holiday. The minister was subsequently sacked.
Ms Lindh was harshly critical of Mr Berlusconi's concentration camp gaffe at the time, saying it was "an awful remark" and adding: "MEPs have the right to ask critical questions without being treated that way." She also implied that Mr Berlusconi's behaviour was a good argument for scrapping the EU's rotating presidency. "If we had an elected chairman of the European Council, we would not have had Mr Berlusconi as chairman," she said.
Yesterday, the offices of Mr Berlusconi and Franco Frattini, the Italian Foreign Minister, declined to comment on Ms Lindh's remarks. Vittorio Feltri, editor of Libero, an independent daily of the right, said: "To say that Italy does not have profound roots in Europe is an erratic observation because Italy was one of the founders of the European Community. But it is true that it will be difficult to conclude the talks on the new EU constitution because it requires the agreement of all the member states. There are too many obstacles, and they are impossible to overcome."