Leading Article: Signs of rust in the soul of iron Italy

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It was only an arranged date in the diplomatic calendar that took Silvio Berlusconi to Bonn yesterday on his first foreign visit as Italian Prime Minister, but it was appropriate for him to hear the views of a solid, conservative German government on his debut abroad.

Chancellor Kohl, his host, is a leader well schooled in the trying tests of history and is perhaps the right man to smooth over the distinctly mixed emotions that first greeted the Berlusconi coalition and its neo-fascist members.

Mr Berlusconi insists that his government is unshakeably committed to democracy. The neo-fascists, while content to hymn the achievements of Fascist Italy, do not imagine that it can be reproduced today. People are entitled to dislike the neo-fascist ministers. Some European socialists have refused them any courtesy, although the effectiveness of this gesture may be doubted, since it serves merely to irritate the sensibilities of those Italian commentators ever ready to detect condescension on the part of foreigners.

Douglas Hurd was correct, therefore, to say this week that the Italian government has been duly elected. It is patronising to assume that outsiders can dictate its composition. It is certainly better to judge Mr Berlusconi's government by what it does, not what some of its members seem to stand for. Here, alas, is where the Foreign Secretary may already have committed the historic British error of misjudging Italian intentions by Italian pronouncements. It is the fond delusion of the British government that in Mr Berlusconi we have at last found the heavyweight European ally so long denied to us: sceptical about a deeper Union, a free-marketeer, hostile to state control and ready to recite a libretto composed in Bruges, not Brussels. These are false hopes. They ignore Mr Berlusconi's career in a state- rigged market ruled by political patronage and they assume that he is ready to echo Tory themes to the detriment of Italy's wider European interests. He is not.

The businesslike agenda at the Bonn talks provided evidence of that. Italy is bargaining hard about top jobs at the European Commission and the World Trade Organisation. Her diplomats are conscious that Italy can play an unpredictable role at the next European summit in Corfu and at the next meeting of the G7, which Mr Berlusconi is to host in Naples. The European Commission has just performed a U-turn to avoid a showdown with Italy on the vexed question of steel subsidies. And a coalition dependent upon votes in the south of Italy will be very cautious about agricultural reform, cutting bureaucracy or putting right the state finances.

Let the Berlusconi government be judged by its deeds. But British ministers should not delude themselves about its intentions.