Immigration will be priority for Italians

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Immigration is to be a priority of the Italian EU presidency and Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's Prime Minister, is promoting plans for an agency to fight illegal migration.

Under pressure at home because of a steady influx of asylum-seekers, Mr Berlusconi has beefed up his anti-immigration rhetoric and promised to clamp down on human trafficking.

He is also expected to give priority to a set of European Commission proposals that would co-ordinate activities of immigration officers from EU nations operating in the Mediterranean - particularly involving Italy, Spain and Greece.

In an interview with an Italian newspaper, the European commissioner for justice and home affairs, Antonio Vitorino, described the control of the EU's external borders as a "common task", and said that in the next six months the Commission would propose a European agency to "co-ordinate the work of the centres of control of external land and sea borders, in particular in the Mediterranean".

Mr Berlusconi's tenure at the EU's presidency is being viewed with concern in Brussels, not just because of strained relations with the European Commission president, Romano Prodi.

Yesterday the Italian premier sought to reinforce his reputation as an ally of the US President, George Bush, to whom he gave some backing during the war in Iraq. In an interview with French radio, Mr Berlusconi said that Europe "must be complementary to the United States", adding: "I think the West must be united. There can't be competition between us and America." He argued that rivalry was acceptable in business and economics but not in politics. He added that, to be a more credible power on the world stage, the EU needed to develop a strong military force.

The priorities of Mr Berlusconi's presidency also include the desire to reach agreement among heads of government on the EU's new draft constitution, which the Italian government would like to see signed in Rome. It also wants to improve economic competitiveness, press ahead with enlargement while developing relations with neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Russia, and boost the EU's common foreign and security policy.

Mr Berlusconi had faced bribery charges relating to a business deal, but he has benefited from last-minute legislation granting him immunity from prosecution while in office.

He will outline his vision for the EU at the European Parliament in Strasbourg tomorrow. Many political groups there have expressed concern over the Italian government, pointing to the immunity law, the concentration of media power in Mr Berlusconi's hands and his government's anti-immigration rhetoric.