Italy's new foreign minister talked tough Monday on immigration as Romania said it was despatching its interior minister to Rome to try and defuse tensions over rising crime blamed on its nationals.
Prime Minsister Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing government is preparing an arsenal of controversial anti-immigration measures targeting Romanians in particular, but EU rules limit its room for manoeuvre.
"Italian citizens do not want racist or xenophobic behaviour by the Berlusconi government, which it would in any case never adopt," Franco Frattini said on RAI public radio, adding: "But by their vote they have asked for a firm attitude."
"Italians have asked for change, mainly in strengthening measures to punish those who break the rules," Frattini said, citing the example of a Romanian woman alleged to have tried to kidnap a child in Naples this weekend.
That kind of news, he warned, "sharply shakes up public opinion."
Romania's Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu said he was despatching his interior minister on an urgent trip to Rome to try and defuse the growing bilateral row over immigration.
"We have proposed to the Italian authorities that we could urgently send a team of Romanian policemen and prosecutors to lend support to the Italian authorities in their efforts to combat crime."
Berlusconi's forces, who campaigned for more law and order ahead of the April vote, have highlighted reports alleging various offences, especially rape, said to have involved Romanian immigrants.
New Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a member of the anti-immigration, eurosceptic Northern League -- a junior coalition partner -- is finalising measures to crack down on clandestine immigration.
Maroni wants in particular to curb a surge in Romanian immigration since Bucharest joined the European Union in January 2007.
The Northern League wants a suspension of the Schengen treaty allowing free movement for EU citizens in 22 of the 27 EU member states.
Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, waded into the row on Monday saying he did not agree with a proposed new offence of clandestine immigration.
"It is clearly necessary to respect the law and to regulate the flow of migrants, but one cannot say that we have no need for immigrants," Martino added.
The Italian press fears tensions with the EU authorities in Brussels over Rome's policy towards Romanians.
Relations became strained between Italy and Romania over Italian measures to make it easier to expel Romanians, after a Romanian gypsy was blamed for the murder of an Italian woman last year.
The murder led to a decree passed in November allowing the expulsion of nationals from EU member countries for reasons of public security, after which several dozen Romanians were deported and the European Commission warned Italy against "mass expulsions."
The maiden session of Berlusconi's cabinet, to be held in Naples next week, was set to announce planned anti-immigration measures.
Proposals include the creation of a new offence of clandestine immigration, an extension of the period during which apprehended would-be immigrants can be held in detention, and use of DNA tests to monitor reuniting families.
In Bucharest, Tariceanu said the rise in crime by Romanians living in Italy was partly the result of a "weak reaction" from the Italian authorities, who needed to "intervene in a firm and determined manner."
He disagreed with calls in Italy to limit immigration, especially of Romanians, insisting "the right to move freely in Europe is one of the fundamental pillars" of the EU and Romania "could not agree with the violation" of this right.
Tariceanu, however, agreed it was in the two countries' "bilateral interest to resolve the situation positively."
In doing so, he highlighted economic ties, particularly the fact that the Romanian community in Italy contributes to more than one percent of the country's GDP and that 23,000 Italian companies operate in Romania.
Currently some 342,200 Romanians live in Italy according to official figures, but the Roman Catholic charity Caritas says the figure has climbed as high as 556,000 since Romania joined the EU.