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Italian Foreign Minister Grilled Over Freemasonry and Berlusconi Corruption Charges




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Turkish Press
http://www.turkishpress.com/news.asp?ID=33809

Italian FM steers steady course to end EU limbo

AFP: 11/15/2004

STRASBOURG (AFP) - Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini carefully avoided controversy as he was grilled by EU lawmakers over his fitness to take up the sensitive European Commission justice brief.

Frattini, replacing disputed candidate Rocco Buttiglione as Rome's EU nominee, notably vowed that if approved he will distance himself from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who faces a web of legal action.

His comments came at a three-hour confirmation hearing at the European Parliament, part of EU efforts to end an unprecedented state of limbo which has delayed the EU executive from taking office.

The EU legislative assembly is widely expected to finally approve the new commission in a vote scheduled for Thursday.

But MEPs had promised a potentially bumpy ride. Some critics suggested before the hearing that an Italian nominee should not get the sensitive EU justice brief at all, given the judicial problems surrounding Berlusconi.

In response Frattini -- a former ski instructor who one MEP said was using his skills on the slopes to avoid upsets in his EU grilling -- repeatedly insisted he will remain completely independent from the Italian government.

And he declined to comment on Berlusconi's latest problem: a prosecutor's call for him to face an eight-year jail term on charges of bribing judges.

"Obviously I will not comment on the reference to domestic situations," he said. "I am here as a candidate, a representative for Europe, I am not here to represent or defend a national government."

Jose Manuel Barroso's new EU executive was supposed to take office on November 1. But he was forced to withdraw his first-choice team at the last minute on October 27 after EU lawmakers threatened to veto it in protest principally at Buttiglione's views that homosexuality was a "sin."

This plunged the EU into uncharted waters, with outgoing commission head Romano Prodi having to stay on as a caretaker in the Brussels EU executive until the situation is resolved.

Buttiglione stood down only after EU leaders made it clear that he could not credibly remain as Rome's candidate for Brussels.

To resolve the standoff incoming commission chief Barroso also accepted a replacement for Latvia's disputed nominee Ingrida Udre, while reshuffling Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs.

On Monday MEPs' questioning mostly focussed squarely on serious policy issues, and Frattini vowed to find a balance between boosting security to tackle new threats such as post-9/11 terrorism, and protecting civil liberties.

Frattini had clearly learned the lesson of not rising to contentious personal or moral questions, as Buttiglione did in his hearing.

At one point an EU lawmaker asked him about his views on gay marriages -- which are so far only allowed in two of the EU's 25 member states: Belgium and the Netherlands.

He avoided the specific question, but replied that freedom of movement -- which allows gay couples to get married where they want to -- was guaranteed under EU law.

Frattini notably denied he was a freemason -- a suggestion made by Buttiglione himself last week, apparently lashing out after his enforced withdrawal. "I'm not a Mason. I have never been one," he said.

Hungary's Kovacs, who was widely criticized for not having a command of the energy brief in his first confirmation hearings, is due to be grilled again on Tuesday morning.

11/15/2004 - 21:00 GMT - AFP

Copyright 2004 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AFP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Agence France Presse.


Turkish Press
http://www.turkishpress.com/news.asp?ID=33779

Italian FM denies masonic links as EU eyes end to limbo

AFP: 11/15/2004

STRASBOURG (AFP) - Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini denied being a Freemason, as he faced a closely-watched grilling from EU lawmakers over becoming Rome`s nominee for the European Commission.

He was quizzed over his masonic links at a three-hour confirmation hearing at the European Parliament, part of EU efforts to end an unprecedented state of limbo which has delayed the EU executive from taking office.

"I`m not a Mason. I have never been one," he told the justice committee of the EU assembly, which last month voted down Italy`s controversial first choice for its EU nominee, Rocco Buttiglione.

Buttiglione himself made the suggestion that Frattini should be asked if he was a member of a Masonic Lodge last week, after he had bowed to pressure to stand aside over his comments that homosexuality a "sin."

Frattini, after denying the suggestion, was pressed over whether he agreed that membership of a Masonic Lodge should be a declarable activity for public office, given that Masons are bound to help each other professionally.

"I agree with you," he told the British MEP who asked him the question, declining to elaborate further.

The European Parliament is widely expected to finally approve the new Commission led by Jose Manuel Barroso in a vote scheduled for Thursday, but MEPs are promising a potentially bumpy ride.

"It`s not a cosmetic exercise... We are going to put them through the hoops," said Tony Robinson of the 200-strong Socialist bloc, the second biggest in the European Parliament and the key force which scuppered last month`s vote.

Barroso`s new EU executive was supposed to take office on November 1. But he was forced to withdraw his first-choice team at the last minute on October 27 after EU lawmakers threatened to veto it in protest principally at Buttiglione.

This plunged the EU into uncharted waters, with outgoing Commission head Romano Prodi having to stay on as a caretaker in the Brussels EU executive until the situation is resolved.

Buttiglione stood down only after EU leaders made it clear that he could not credibly remain as Rome`s candidate for Brussels.

At the same time Barroso accepted a replacement for Latvia`s disputed nominee Ingrida Udre, while reshuffling Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs from the energy portfolio to the taxation brief.

Kovacs, who was widely criticized for not having a command of the energy brief in his first confirmation hearings, is due to be grilled again on Tuesday morning.

Many see the row as part of horse-trading surrounding Buttiglione`s ouster. The Italian was backed by the EPP, which was widely expected to seek a Socialist scalp -- that of Kovac -- in return for his withdrawal.

At the start of his hearing Monday evening, the suave Italian minister stressed his commitment to civil rights and his opposition to discrimination of whatever sort.

"If I am appointed obviously I shall base my activities on the furtherance of fundamental rights," he told the justice committee in the EU assembly, the same MEPs who last month rejected Buttiglione.

Some critics have an even more basic problem with Frattini, arguing that an Italian nominee should not get the sensitive EU justice brief at all, given the web of judicial probes surrounding Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

"Giving Italy (the) justice and home affairs (brief) is like making the poacher into the gamekeeper," said Greens spokesman Helmut Weixler.

11/15/2004 - 18:31 GMT - AFP

Copyright 2004 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AFP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Agence France Presse.


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