Italy's new leader: U.S. will still be a friend
Updated 4/28/2006 4:49 AM ET
By Eric J. Lyman, Special for USA TODAY
ROME — Incoming Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi
offered assurances Thursday that U.S.-Italian ties would
remain strong, but he emphasized that he is an advocate of
European integration and opposes the war in Iraq.
In his first interview with a U.S. newspaper since his victory
over Silvio Berlusconi in elections this month, Prodi, 66,
discussed issues ranging from what he called his
"friendship" with President Bush to the war on terror to
domestic priorities, including better coordination with the
rest of Europe.
As prime minister, Berlusconi forged a strong personal
relationship with Bush, and Prodi's approach to U.S.
relations became an issue during the campaign for the
election April 9-10.
Prodi, a former prime minister and European Commission
president, said he plans to stress relations within Europe
more than his predecessor.
He added that there would not be any dramatic change in Italy's ties with the United States.
"I have never had anything but a strong relationship with the United States: I stood shoulder to shoulder with President Clinton when I
was prime minister the first time (1996-1998), and I have worked well with President Bush when I was European Commission
president," Prodi said in the interview, conducted at the headquarters of the Ulivo Party, the leading party in his coalition. "We have
agreed on most things, with one significant exception: the war in Iraq."
Berlusconi supported the U.S. invasion and the war. He deployed nearly 3,500 troops in 2003 — at the time, the third-largest troop
contingent after the United States and Britain.
He also backed most U.S. international policies. In March, less than a month before the Italian elections, Berlusconi addressed a
joint session of the U.S. Congress.
Prodi has criticized the U.S.-led war in Iraq. By the time Italy held its election, both candidates vowed to have the 2,900 Italian troops
home by the end of the year.
Despite concerns about the war — including the deaths Thursday of three Italian soldiers in a roadside bombing in southern Iraq —
Prodi said he would not immediately withdraw Italian forces.
"I remain pessimistic about both Iraq and also about Afghanistan, because the task in those countries is impossible: to build
something stable on a situation that is not stable. But we are not trying to escape our responsibilities in Iraq," he said.
He said he saw a different role for Italian personnel: "We know it is important to participate in the rebuilding of the country. But it will
not be in combat positions."
Prodi called himself a friend of Bush. He recalled riding a bike alongside Bush, who was on a run, in Atlanta.
Prodi said friendship does not mean he always has to agree with U.S. policy.
"I have good feelings about President Bush," he said. "But because of our friendship, it is important to tell the truth, to be honest about
points of dissent."
Prodi said that when Bush called to congratulate him on his electoral victory last week, the U.S. president said the two leaders would
meet soon, in Washington or at the Group of Eight summit of leading industrial nations in St. Petersburg, Russia, in July.
"I hope to go to Washington soon," Prodi said. "But considering I am not even in the government yet, I think it will be some time after I
see President Bush in Russia."
The process of forming a government begins today with a vote for leader of the Senate — a test for Prodi's coalition, which holds a
slim majority in the Senate.
Discussing the international war on terrorism, Prodi said efforts should be, for the most part, pan-European. "Italy is a midrange
power," he said. "What can we do alone? But in a European context, we can be effective."
Prodi said he will focus domestically on reviving the slowest-growing economy in the European Union and reducing the budget deficit,
which was 4.1% of the gross domestic product in 2005.
He also said he wants antitrust officials to look into the television media sector, much of which Berlusconi controls, to allow more
Prodi's promotion of the continued integration of Europe promises to be a top focus of his administration.
"In the Renaissance, the powerful cities in Italy like Rome, Florence and Venice were without rival," said Prodi, a historian and
economist. "They led the world in banking, wealth, trade, technology, military strength, agriculture and art and culture. But they did not
unite, and so they disappeared."
He warned: "That is the precise point where Europe finds itself now. We have to work together or risk becoming irrelevant."
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Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi with the author