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Foreign minister of Italy resigns over euro policy

Departure leaves big hole in premier’s government

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ROME — Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero quit on Saturday after a row with Cabinet colleagues over the introduction of the euro, leaving a gaping hole at the heart of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government.

A statement from the prime minister's office said Berlusconi had accepted Ruggiero's resignation after discussing the events of the past few days, including articles in the press related to the future of Europe.

A former head of the World Trade Organization, Ruggiero gave Berlusconi's center-right administration badly needed credibility, and his departure was a body blow to the prime minister, casting a shadow over last week's euro rollout.

Ruggiero, who did not belong to any party in Berlusconi's coalition, attacked some Cabinet colleagues for belittling the ambitious euro project following the rollout of the currency on Jan. 1.

"The differences of opinion aren't marked, they are very marked," Ruggiero had said in a newspaper interview.

The statement from the prime minister's office said: "Prime Minister Berlusconi thanked minister Ruggiero most warmly for the work he carried out on behalf of the country, and above all for what he did when the government came into office to help its international image."

Angry opposition politicians demanded an emergency debate in parliament over the resignation, while foreign leaders said Ruggiero's absence would be keenly felt.

"I deeply regret the departure of Renato Ruggiero with whom I had a very trusting relationship. He was a committed European who enjoyed a very strong reputation across Europe," French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said.

A confirmed europhile, Ruggiero had a number of run-ins with important members of Berlusconi's fractious coalition since it took office last June, but matters came to a head following the euro launch.

While most of Europe welcomed the arrival of the new euro notes and coins, a trio of Italian ministers spoiled the party with hostile comments about the currency and its supporters. Defence Minister Antonio Martino said "the euro experience could end in failure," Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti sneered at what he called "primates waving banners" and Reform Minister Umberto Bossi said he "couldn't care less about the euro."

In a swift riposte, Ruggiero told a newspaper that the attacks had filled him with sorrow and made a veiled plea for Berlusconi to intervene and assure Italy's EU partners that Rome was still committed to European unity.

When Berlusconi finally did enter the fray on Friday, the billionaire-businessman-turned-politician only made matters worse by saying that he was responsible for defining Italy's European policy and calling Ruggiero "just a technocrat."

Shifts in policy

As a founding member of the European Union, Italy has traditionally been one of the most ardent supporters of closer integration, but Berlusconi's arrival in power brought with it a dramatic shift of emphasis in the country's EU policy.

In just six months, Rome pulled out of a major European defence project, tried to block a Europe-wide arrest warrant initiative and held up the creation of a number of new EU institutions as it pushed for greater concessions for Italy.

Ruggiero's continued presence in the government, which also contains openly xenophobic and far-right elements, acted as a calming influence in some EU capitals.

"(His resignation) is a very severe blow to the prestige and credibility of Italy," said Piero Fassino, the head of the largest opposition party, the Democrats of the Left.

"We call on the prime minister to go to parliament at once and take stock of the most severe crisis that Italy has ever had regarding its relations with Europe," he said.

By contrast, Ruggiero's departure was greeted with relief by some government supporters, who had always bridled at the fact that Berlusconi called in a diplomat to head the prestigious foreign ministry rather than an elected politician.

"This is a good day," said Reforms Minister Bossi, leader of the anti-immigration Northern League and one of Ruggiero's most vociferous critics.