Italy tries to limit effect of minister's departure

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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's Prime Minister, began a desperate charm offensive yesterday to convince his EU partners his government was committed to a strong unified Europe.

Meanwhile ordinary Italians were having their euro enthusiasm sorely tested by a bank strike and a growing shortage of small change.

Mr Berlusconi took over the foreign affairs portfolio after Renato Ruggiero left the Cabinet because of divisions with his Eurosceptic colleagues. As part of a damage limitation exercise, Mr Berlusconi told the Corriere della Sera newspaper he was firmly convinced that Italy's future lay within "a Europe that is stronger and speaks with one voice and follows up economic integration with political integration".

But the sentiments rang hollow and expressions of concern about Italy's political direction flooded in from around Europe. Mr Ruggiero, 71 and nicknamed "Rocky", was a former head of the World Trade Organisation and the respectable face of a coalition whose populist and xenophobic elements caused concern across the Continent.

Louis Michel, the Belgian Foreign Minister, said his departure was a worrying victory for the anti-European supporters of Umberto Bossi, the Northern League leader. Laurent Fabius, the French Finance Minister, spoke of "a need for a clarification at the level of heads of government" for Mr Ruggiero's departure. At home,Renato Mannheimer, a leading pollster, said the loss of Mr Ruggiero could dent the government's popularity.

The Olive Tree opposition coalition has insisted on a parliamentary debate. The govern- ment crisis comes as teething problems for the new currency in Italy refuse to go away.

A strike by bank workers – over the renewal of their contract and the poor management of the currency change- over – provoked more chaos yesterday.

Banking unions said that in the main cities nine out of 10 banks were closed. Retailers often use the Monday morning closure to sort out change, but by yesterday afternoon many were in difficulty.

Desperate Italians tried the post offices, where there were queues several hours long despite extra staff. The post offices were already under pressure from pensioners, most of whom are paid in cash.