War of words between Italy and Spain heats up

Italy fired back Monday saying that Madrid should mind its own affairs after Spain's deputy prime minister criticised the recent arrest of hundreds of illegal immigrants by Silvio Berlusconi's new right-wing government.


Silvio Berlusconi's new Italian government has sought to deflect criticism over its hardline stance on immigrant illegality ahead of new rules being announced on Wednesday.

The plans have brought a fiery attack from Spain, triggering a war of words between Rome and Madrid, but also worried Italians fearful of seeing household employees summarily deported.

New rules on immigration, whether clandestine or concerning legal European Union immigrants who subsequently commit crimes on Italian soil, will be outlined in Naples, where the Berlusconi cabinet's first meeting also has a blazing garbage crisis to address.

On Monday, Italian press reports indicated that Rome was backtracking after last week's crackdown which saw hundreds of foreign nationals arrested, including gypsies from EU member Romania.

The intervention of Italy's ex-communist president, Giorgio Napolitano, in an ironic alliance with the Catholic Church, appears to have taken the edge off Berlusconi's initial plans, without watering down their basic premise.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini retorted to critics in Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapateroto's Socialist government in Madrid, pointing out that Spain has itself been "very tough" on immigrants and suggesting its policies have even served as a template for Rome's new thinking.

However, he also urged Zapatero to rap the knuckles of figures including Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, who suggested that Italy was seeking to ride roughshod over "the rule of law and human rights."

Spain's Equality Minister Bibiana Aido also took aim at Berlusconi for including only four women in his government in contrast with Zapatero's, which has a female majority.

Frattini said the remarks of Fernandez and Aido -- who agreed with an interviewer's rhetorical statement that Berlusconi might benefit from psychological evaluation -- were "unnecessary."

Italy's European Affairs Minister Andrea Ronchi is to visit Madrid on Thursday to explain Rome's policies "and end tension" that has arisen over the matter, the government said Monday.

"It must be understood that we are at the gate of entry to Europe from the Mediterranean and this gate must be closed to illegality," the Corriera della Sera quoted Ronchi as saying.

The immigration measures, piloted by hardline Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the xenophobic Northern League, sparked an emergency trip to Rome by his Romanian counterpart Cristian David, while Brussels is also maintaining a close watching brief to ensure the new laws must conform to EU rules.

David was at pains to point out that Romanians have the right to move freely within the EU, as do citizens of all 27 member countries, while offering full cooperation in tackling criminality involving Italian residents of Romanian origin.

An election campaign dominated to a large extent by immigration-related fear following a series of heavily-publicised incidents involving Roma in particular explains the Berlusconi government's urgency on the issue.

As tension built two Roma camps were torched near Naples last week in reprisals for the attempted abduction of a young Italian baby by gypsy travellers.

Reports Monday indicated that the government is pulling back from declaring clandestine immigration an offence, while violating a deportation order will only be an aggravating circumstance rather than a separate crime.

Rome has also moved to assure Italians that up to 400,000 people whose paperwork is not in order but who provide services in the home such as housekeeping or childcare are not targeted.

What does appear to have survived is the stipulation that EU immigrants must secure and maintain a minimum wage and a decent level of accommodation, otherwise they will be sent back to their country of origin "for reasons of public security."

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