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Opposition leader sets Italy’s priorities

April 3, 2008

By Guy Dinmore in Rome Published on FT: April 3 2008

Italy under a new centre-right government would take a tougher line against Iran in the defence of Israel and raise the profile of human rights in dealing with China, according to Gianfranco Fini, leader of the opposition National Alliance.

Mr Fini also told the Financial Times that if his centre-right alliance with Silvio Berlusconi returned to power in elections in 10 days’ time – as opinion polls indicate – Italian policy would be to expel large numbers of gypsies and other European Union citizens.

In an interview Mr Fini, a former foreign minister and deputy prime minister in the 2001-06 Berlusconi government, portrayed the current centre-left administration led by Romano Prodi as too eager to engage “terrorist” groups such as Hamas, too soft on Iran and lacking the will to tackle tough issues such as immigration.

Although the National Alliance traces its roots to Italy’s fascist past, Mr Fini has developed close ties with Israel, in particular since denouncing fascism in a 2003 visit to Jerusalem. Last week he was a guest at celebrations in Rome of Israel’s 60th anniversary, along with Richard Perle, a prominent US neo-conservative.

The defence of Israel should concern everyone in the west “because terrorism is striking Israel today with the hope of striking us tomorrow”, he said, ruling out contacts with the Palestinian group Hamas, as the current foreign minister, Massimo D’Alema, proposes.

Calling Iran the “danger of today”, he said the EU should take a “very tough” stand and that Italy’s position as an important European trade partner gave it extra leverage in imposing sanctions against Tehran’s nuclear programme.

However, Mr Fini also urged the Bush administration to drop its rejection of dialogue with Iran. “Dialogue is always a good idea,” he said, “but not whistling in the wind.”

In the recent shake-up of Italy’s centre-right, Mr Fini, 56, has emerged as the likely successor to Mr Berlusconi, 71, who aides say is unlikely to serve a full five-year term. Dismissing that as “all rumours”, Mr Fini said there would be “no Blair-Brown relay race”.

Mr Fini has steered the National Alliance towards the conservative mainstream, where it is now in alliance with Mr Berlusconi’s newly founded People of Freedom party, into which it says it will merge. While his move away from the far right has dismayed a small minority of neo-fascists, he has stuck to a hard line on immigration, an important election issue.

Referring mainly to an influx of Romanian jobseekers, he said a centre-right government would expel EU citizens who did not have a regular income or fixed abode. EU directives were “very clear”, he said, that they could be expelled after three months, just as an Italian “sleeping under a bridge in London” could also be made to leave.

Asked if many such gypsies, mostly Romanians, might be expelled, he answered: “Yes, definitely, definitely. They can be expelled. Unless they accept integration, if they send their children to our schools, if they have a job, there is no need for them to be expelled.”

He said he would not whip up xenophobia but EU countries had a duty to take back their citizens. “So the question of the gypsies can be resolved if there is the political will to do it. The leftwing government did not have the will.”

On China’s human rights record, Mr Fini commended the French president Nicolas Sarkozy for “putting his foot on the accelerator” by leaving the door open to a political boycott of the Olympic opening ceremony. But if it were held tomorrow, Mr Fini said, he would attend.

He criticised the current government for recently snubbing the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, and called on Europe to adopt a more integrated approach towards China that did not treat human rights as a separate agenda. He also acknowledged the dangers of too much pressure.

“When an undemocratic regime, like China, is besieged by the west, it is not always that the people will rebel against that regime.

“Often it creates a national pride, a sense of not being understood,” he said.

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