Europe united in disgust as Berlusconi takes EU throne amid Green protests

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Europe gets its first taste of being ruled by an Italian billionaire media magnate tomorrow, when Italy assumes the European Union's rotating presidency for the next six months, with Silvio Berlusconi at its head.

A shiver of dire anticipation ran through the continent at the weekend, with French, German, Spanish and British newspapers expressing foreboding. The German newspaper Die Zeit, referring to the new immunity law by the Italian Prime Minister extracted himself from a trial for bribing judges that was close to reaching a verdict, commented, "Berlusconi is putting himself above the law."

The paper argued that Europe should take developments in Italy as seriously as it did the election of the neo-fascist leader Jorg Haider in Austria three years ago, which prompted the EU to impose sanctions.

Der Spiegel, the German news weekly, labels Mr Berlusconi "The Godfather" on the cover of its latest issue, and comments, "at home he dismantles justice, subjugates television, has laws tailored to his needs. And now ... he will represent Europe."

When Mr Berlusconi addresses the European Parliament on Wednesday, the Greens have promised to greet him with a banner reading "The Law is Equal to All" - the motto that decorates every Italian courtroom. In his latest appearance in court, Mr Berlusconi said that, because he was elected by the majority, he was "a little bit more equal".

Beside making himself heard above the howls of protest, the European Union's new president must also learn how to work amicably with Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission. Mr Prodi, a left-wing former professor of economics, is the only Italian who has proved he can beat Mr Berlusconi at the polls (in 1996, when Mr Prodi became Prime Minister).

The styles of the two men could not be more different. "That nice cyclist" Mr Berlusconi once remarked sneeringly of Mr Prodi (who used to bike to work) while Mr Prodi has noted that "compared to Berlusconi, Goebbels was just a kid." Italy's biggest challenge during the presidency will be forging agreement on the new EU constitution, which it hopes will be ratified at a ceremony in Rome next May. The new statutory framework envisages a longer-term presidency and an EU foreign minister, as well as expanded majority voting.

Mr Berlusconi is said to be keen on inserting a reference to Christianity - though he also wants to throw open the EU to non-Christian countries, including Turkey and Israel.

Italy faces the challenge of making Europe play its part beside the US, Russia and the UN in promoting the Middle East road-map. Mr Berlusconi has invited Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Prime Minister, to Rome next month, hoping thereby to assure Europe that his government does not have a pro-Israeli tilt.

Illegal immigration has become a hot potato with the arrival of thousands of migrants by sea this month, and with threats of rebellion by his cantankerous coalition colleague, Umberto Bossi. Italy is pressing Libya, where most of the sea trips originate, to do more to patrol its coast line, and the EU to lift its arms embargo so Libya can buy the patrol vessels it says it needs to do the job.

* Pope John Paul II urged EU policy makers to recognise Europe's Christian roots in the bloc's first constitution, the first draft of which makes no mention of the religion.