Blair flies to Rome to soothe Berlusconi

Tony Blair flew to Rome yesterday afternoon for a fleeting summit with his Italian counterpart, Silvio Berlusconi, the underlying message of which was that the two leaders were once again firm friends.

A little over two weeks ago Mr Berlusconi described a summit meeting between the leaders of Britain, France and Germany in Berlin as a pasticcio, a mess. Europe he said "has no need of any directorate". Yesterday Mr Blair went out of his way to agree. "There is not and never has been any question of a self-appointed directoire," he said in answer to a question. "That's not what we should be about."

Mr Berlusconi, with his support for the war in Iraq and commitment, on paper at least, to thoroughgoing economic reform in Europe, is Mr Blair's oldest and most reliable EU ally. But the Berlin meeting on 18 February went down badly in Rome. Several other EU members also criticised the meeting, but the mercurial Italian media tycoon was by far the most outspoken.

The leaders reaffirmed their commitment to Iraq, where Italy's peace-keeping force in the south makes it one of the most committed members of the US-led coalition. Mr Blair appeared to admit that the timetable for the handover of political control to Iraqis, scheduled for 30 June, might slip after the devastating attacks on Shia worshippers this week. "There is always debate over the timetable," he said, "but we should do our best to stick to it."

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