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EU places Berlusconi in spotlight

Berlusconi talks to parliament about Italy's presidency of the EU.

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European newspapers attack Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi's political record as Italy prepares to take on the rotating EU presidency. (June 30)
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Is the criticism of Silvio Berlusconi justified?

MILAN, Italy (CNN) -- When Italy takes over the European Union presidency Tuesday, it will mark a new phase in the colorful and controversial career of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Among the challenges facing him during the six-month rotating presidency will be a flagging continent-wide economy, controversial pension reforms and negotiations to decide the final wording of the EU's historic first constitution.

But Italy's presidency will thrust Berlusconi into the international limelight at a time when his legal problems are attracting more attention than his government policies.

Among the legal wrangles is a bribery trial in Milan which was suspended by an immunity law passed just days ahead of the EU presidency.

The billionaire also faces allegations of conflict of interest between his office and his vast business empire, despite promising to answer the complaints within 100 days of taking office.

To his critics, he is a man with too many problems to properly represent the EU in the global community. But for others, including those who have fought him politically, the time has come to move on.

"The problem now is really what he will do with his government both in domestic terms and international terms," says Franco Venturini, a journalist with the Italian daily newspaper Corriere Della Sera.

"We are not in the phases of saying that he is nice or not nice, or you like his style or do not like his style. Now he has to deliver, and this is his problem, and our problem."

Berlusconi says his priorities for the EU include stemming illegal immigration in the region, rebuilding trans-Atlantic ties frayed by the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and completing a new constitution ahead of the bloc's enlargement in 2004.

The issues topped the agenda at the EU summit two weeks ago in Greece. (Full story)

"Berlusconi is a very pro-American leader. However we know that during the Iraq war, before and after, there have been disagreements between Americans and Europeans, and there is a strong political will now to mend fences with America," says Venturini.

Still, the Italian prime minister could come under pressure during his EU tenure for his position on immigration.

The issue is threatening to plunge Berlusconi's government into a new crisis, which could spill over into the EU. Allies within his coalition are demanding the resignation of the interior minister, who they blame for a recent rise in illegal immigration.

And while he focuses on Europe, Berlusconi's political opponents are promising to keep up the pressure at home.

"I think Italy's democracy is not at risk, but it is not even in good shape," says Giovanna Melandri, a member of parliament.

"For example, the very recent immunity law that was approved by parliament is unconstitutional ... and informally we have to defend a pluralistic approach to media and we have to resolve the issue of conflicts of interests."

Berlusconi -- who heads a $12 billion business empire -- has influence across the country, including three private television stations, insurance and publishing companies, and financial and real estate services.

Those interests have long been the focus of critics who say the prime minister's ties are too close to business and that he wields too much control over the media. The government also has influence over the state-run channels.

However, legal battles and criticism of his business practices do not appear to have affected Berlusconi's popularity among voters, who have elected him to office twice -- in 1994 and 2001.

Italy's turn at the EU presidency could have been more embarrassing for Berlusconi if the immunity bill had not been passed. He could have been ordered to appear in court during the presidency.

A panel of judges hearing Berlusconi's long-running bribery trial said they would suspend the case in accordance with the controversial immunity legislation, which was pushed through parliament by Berlusconi supporters. (Full story)

But the list of legal wrangles is long.

Berlusconi has appeared in court just twice during his trial, to deny charges that he took part in a 1980s plot to bribe judges in an alleged attempt to scuttle a business rival's takeover of the state-owned food conglomerate SME.

He has also faced a Spanish judicial investigation into alleged fraud and tax evasion.

Spain's National Court asked Italian authorities in 2002 to strip Berlusconi of immunity from prosecution in an inquiry into alleged wrongdoing involving a Spanish television channel partly controlled by Berlusconi's holding company.

But the investigation was dropped under the statute of limitations.

In addition, Berlusconi was a focus of an investigation into alleged false bookkeeping in the transfer of former Torino star Gianluigi Lentini to AC Milan in 1992.

The Milan giant paid about $10 million for the midfielder, but it was alleged they paid an extra, undeclared $5 million under the table to secure the deal, which was then allegedly stashed away in a Swiss bank account.

Berlusconi denied the charge, and he was cleared by a Milan court in November 2002 after the 4 1/2-year statute of limitations had run out.

-- CNN Rome Bureau Chief Alessio Vinci contributed to this report.

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