Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged yesterday to give priority to promoting investment in pan-European transport and energy projects to boost economic growth during Italy's six-month presidency of the EU.
Berlusconi gave no figures for the investment plan, already outlined by Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti, but he told the European Parliament that the EU needed to reconcile growth measures with monetary and fiscal rigor.
"We cannot hide the fact that there are lasting weaknesses in our economic structures, which are characterized by growth rates that are much lower than those forecast," the billionaire businessman-turned-politician said.
"The first [priority] is the need for greater support in the economy through an increase in public and private investment with the cooperation of the European financial institutions, above all the European Investment Bank.
"Such a strategy must be based above all on a relaunch of the Trans-European Networks," he added.
The network projects, first agreed in 1994, are designed to overcome natural barriers such as the Alps, the Pyrenees and key waterways, as well as re-connecting western and eastern Europe.
But investment has been relatively slow so far because of a failure to agree on how to finance the program.
Berlusconi made no explicit mention of the EU's Stability and Growth Pact, which limits member states' budget deficits to 3 percent of GDP, but he did say the EU had to stick to fiscal prudence.
"We have to reconcile the need for monetary stability and financial rigor -- these are goals that should not be called into question in any way -- while at the same time stimulating economic growth through investments not just in infrastructure but also in research and technological innovation," he said.
Berlusconi said that his other two priorities to boost the continent's economy were to promote an adaptation of European pensions and social welfare systems to meet the challenges of an aging population, and to modernize the EU's labor markets.
As Berlusconi began to address the legislature in Strasbourg, Green members of the parliament protested against his taking over the EU presidency, raising banners and jeering.
About 15 ecologist lawmakers held up placards in Italian declaring "La legge e uguale per tutti" (The law is equal for all) and "No godfathers."
The Italian leader, who had been on trial for allegedly bribing judges over a 1980s business deal, has just rushed a law through parliament granting himself and other top state officials immunity from prosecution while in office.
Yesterday Berlusconi dismissed accusations that he is unfit to take over the EU's revolving presidency.
"Respectability is not our problem because we have it in abundance. And no one is in a position to give lessons in morality to a government elected by the Italians," Berlusconi wrote in The Times of London.
"The dignity and the fully representative nature of the Italian government in its European role are not disputed by serious people who are impartial in their judgements, which is to say, the majority of the observers and players in European politics," he added, one day after Italy's six-month presidency of the 15-nation EU began.