Lib Dem Andrew Duff writes

ITALY'S media magnate and Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, made his second appearance before the European Parliament this week. He came in his capacity as president of the European Council, the EU institution made up of the heads of government of all member states.

ITALY'S media magnate and Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, made his second appearance before the European Parliament this week. He came in his capacity as president of the European Council, the EU institution made up of the heads of government of all member states.

The presidency is passed around from leader to leader on a six monthly rotating basis. On his first visit to the Parliament last July, Berlusconi outraged everyone by likening one German socialist Member to a Nazi concentration camp guard. This time, fortunately, there were no fireworks and Mr Berlusconi was on his best behaviour.

He came to report on the meeting of the European Council in Brussels last week, which had several pressing items of business. First was the famous draft constitution of the European Union, drafted in the Convention. The summit had laboured hard over Europe's future defence arrangements. The Americans have finally woken up to the importance of the constitution and have been sounding alarm bells. Quite rightly, Europe's leaders refused to be alarmed. The EU has every right to assert itself in security and defence matters. After the debacle of the Iraq War, and its aftermath, the EU is in no mood to let Washington choose its enemies on its behalf. Even Tony Blair has now managed to see that EU defence and NATO defence are not competitive but complementary. If well co-ordinated - and why not? - the strengthening of a European military pillar can help boost the Atlantic Alliance. The USA needs a respectable counterpart in the world, wedded to liberal democracy and also capable of international action. Without Europe as a viable partner, there are signs that America will take refuge in unilateralism and even isolation.

The second question for the summit concerned Europe's economic recovery. Here, many fine words were spun about the need for more productivity, competitively and investment. Very little practical action is possible at such an exalted political level, although the European Commission, led by Berlusconi's chief rival in Italian politics Romano Prodi, used the occasion of the leaders' meeting to press its new programme for Trans-European Networks (TENs). Loyal readers of this column may recall previous references to the fact that we have a TEN running right through the heart of our region, which is the east-west link from the East Anglian ports to the Midlands. Earlier articles have lamented the lack of funding, management capacity and political will to drive forward the upgrading of the A14 road and the Felixstowe to Nuneaton railway. The Commission have offered a solution to the financial problem by offering roughly 40% of whatever it takes to build a new rail line. 40% needs now to be found from HM Treasury and the rest from the private sector. So we have the money. Now we only need the management and the politics to come right, and we're off!


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Andrew Duff is the Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for the East of England. www.andrewduffmep.org.

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