Fini looks beyond Heathrow protest

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The Independent Online
It is perhaps no accident that Italy's far-right leader, Gianfranco Fini, has chosen London as the place to launch his campaign for international respectability after his National Alliance party's formal repudiation of its neo-Fascist past.

Despite the anti-Fascist protests which greeted his arrival at Heathrow airport yesterday, and the promise of further disruptions when he addresses the Royal Institute of International Affairs this afternoon, Mr Fini has every reason to expect the warmest of receptions when he meets business leaders, government officials and Conservative MPs from the Commons committee for foreign affairs.

Only opposition MPs were up in arms, with Denis MacShane, of Labour, complaining in a point of order to the Speaker that "Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the Italian Fascists, is being greeted by some Tory MPs".

He noted a Commons motion signed by 112 MPs had condemned Mr Fini on "his Fascism, his anti-Semitism and his connection to Mussolini".

In contrast to European neighbours, the British government did not register so much as a flicker of official alarm when five members of Mr Fini's then openly neo-Fascist movement took up cabinet posts in Silvio Berlusconi's government last year.

While President Francois Mitterrand of France and other European politicians were calling for a boycott of the new ministers, Mr Fini was invited to lunch by the British ambassador in Rome, Sir Patrick Fairweather. British diplomats insist Sir Patrick was merely doing his job of sounding out the new forces in Italian politics, but the lunch was widely interpreted as a sign of friendship towards a movement long considered a pariah both in Italy and abroad.

For several months, Britain looked for signs of Euro- scepticism in Mr Berlusconi's government and hoped parties such as the National Alliance might prove useful allies within the European Union.

According to diplomatic sources, Britain now acknowledges that hope was misplaced and Italian policy was more inconsistent than genuinely sceptical. European policies presented at last month's National Alliance congress are viewed in Whitehall as a hotch-potch of ill-formulated ideas that testify, above all, to Mr Fini's lack of experience in foreign affairs.

"One hopes that Mr Fini's visit will deepen his understanding of some of these issues," one diplomatic source said.

Mr Fini is an infinitely smooth political operator, and will be keen to smooth any feathers ruffled by his past declarations praising Mussolini, casting doubt on the symbolic importance of D-Day and stirring up nationalism among Italian minorities in Slovenia and Croatia. He has shifted away from such positions in recent months, and complained he has been much misquoted.

"I think Italians would laugh at the descriptions of me as a neo-Nazi," he told a Rome news conference on the eve of his departure. "It's hard to explain how complicated Italian politics is ... We have consigned our roots to the judgement of history. I have no intention of appeasing those who don't understand this, or pretend not to understand."

Mr Fini's trip to London has been organised by one of Sir Patrick's predecessors as ambassador to Rome, Sir Derek Thomas. Mr Fini will spend time at the offices of the Times, no doubt to re-establish his acquaintance with its former editor, William Rees-Mogg - one of the few mainstream journalists outside Italy to sing his praises and take his conversion from neo-Fascism at face value.

News Analysis, page 13