Berlusconi, Prodi Fight for Control; A Power Struggle between Two of Italy's Top Political Leaders Threatens Expansion Plans for the European Union and Has Affected U.S.-European Relations

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Byline: Jamie Dettmer, INSIGHT

ITALY - A bitter rivalry has had Italians riveted for months and has made for great newspaper stories. But in Brussels the open competition between the two men currently in charge of the European Union (EU) Italy's flamboyant Prime Minister and current European Council President Silvio Berlusconi and European Commission President Romano Prodi has prompted exasperation and even anxiety. On several occasions, other European politicians have had to step in to urge the two Italian archrivals to cool their animosity. "The only thing I can say to Prodi and Berlusconi is they must forget the disputes being fueled by their political supporters in Italy and concentrate on the major challenges facing us," Pat Cox, the European Parliament president, declared in November. At risk in the unseemly elbowing has been the shape of the EU's enlargement.

Come the new year, European leaders will breathe more easily when Italy concludes its six-month presidency of the EU. But that won't end the wider political ramifications of a personal struggle between the giants of Italian politics that has affected U.S.-European relations and complicated deal making on a new draft constitution for the EU.

Prodi, who ran Italy's longest left-of-center coalition government before being picked in 1999 to head the European Commission, is planning a domestic political comeback one which might lead to defeat for Berlusconi in national polls that could take place any time between next summer and 2006. Prodi, a former economics professor nicknamed "La Mortadella" after the pink sausage from his home city of Bologna, has said he will step down from his Brussels post in June and has made no secret of his ambition to draw together Italy's fractious left-wing parties in an electoral alliance.

For the right-wing Berlusconi, Prodi remains a real political threat. In the wake of a Nov. 12 suicide bombing in Nasiriya, Iraq, at an Italian military-police headquarters that left 18 Italian soldiers dead, Prodi even surged ahead of the prime minister in the opinion polls.

For the last few months neither Prodi nor Berlusconi have pulled any punches while battling each other ahead of an electoral showdown. Both have broken unwritten rules guiding relations between Europe's national leaders and the EU commission president. Driven on by a mutual aversion that dates back to the 1980s, an aversion that was on very public display when Prodi beat Berlusconi at the polls back in 1996, these two leaders who are meant to share the leadership of the EU barely have been on speaking terms. Now each is denouncing the other publicly and trying to trip the other up in disagreements about the future shape of an enlarged EU.

Prodi launched a broadside in November against his right-wing rival's coalition government, arguing that it has caused anguish to Italy. That earned the rebuke of European conservative leaders, one of whom argued, "This is improper conduct for someone who holds an office which should guarantee neutrality for everybody." A week before, Prodi upbraided Berlusconi, Italy's billionaire businessman turned prime minister, for defending Russian President Vladimir Putin's brutal anti-insurgency campaign in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Prodi also fumed at Berlusconi's support for the controversial arrest of the politically ambitious Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khordokovsky, an arrest that was denounced by other European leaders.

And earlier in the year Prodi hit at Berlusconi, who owns Italy's three main private TV channels, for his unabashed exploitation of his media ownership. "I am seriously outraged by how the head of the government has used television for his own personal goals in a way which has no precedent in our history," he said.

Not to be outdone, Berlusconi has lashed back at Prodi, most notably during the Milan trial of the prime minister on long-running bribery charges. …

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