Berlusconi under fire at EU summit

2011-10-23 13:09

Brussels - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, under sharp pressure from his EU partners over Italy's finances, was called in for pre-summit tete-a-tetes Sunday as European leaders headed into crunch talks on the debt crisis.

Berlusconi arrived at the summit venue well ahead of his 26 counterparts for talks with European Union president Herman Van Rompuy and was to join a three-way meeting, also ahead of the crunch summit, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"The idea is to pressure Berlusconi," a diplomat said amid fears Italy is being sucked into contagion from the eurozone crisis, but is failing to take tough action.

The Italian leader held a face-to-face meeting late Saturday with Merkel and, when asked whether he thought he had convinced her of his determination to announce new cuts and reforms, said "I think so."

The EU executive last week pressed Italy to move on cuts in public spending and structural reforms "as a matter of urgency."

European officials believe Italy has softened on its vows to implement cuts and reforms since August, when the European Central Bank (ECB) moved to support Rome by buying up its debt on markets.

Irritation is all the stronger at a time Europe is battling to protect Italy and Spain, its third and fourth largest economies, against contagion from the debt crisis.

At talks with his conservative partners, Berlusconi outlined an austerity plan adopted by the Italian parliament, said a party to the talks who could not be named. But he appeared "very reluctant" on the need to do more, a diplomat said.

Budget cuts adopted by its parliament in July and September aim to bring the country back into balance from 2013 and reduce its colossal 1.9 trillion euro debt, amounting to 120 percent of its Gross National Product.