Signor Berlusconi is a very popular Prime Minister despite (or because of?) his penchant for saying exactly what he thinks. And I have no doubt that he speaks for his voters in this matter. It may be noted that Italians in general are much less afraid of “racism” accusations than are more Northern countries. One reason is Italy’s distinguished history in WWII, when Italians from the Pope down did all they could to hide Jews from the Germans

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, today came under fire from the Catholic Church as well as the Left after declaring that Italy was not and should not be a multi-ethnic society.

Mr Berlusconi’s centre Right coalition won power a year ago partly by vowing to crack down on crime and illegal immigration. This weekend he praised Libya for taking back 500 would be migrants who have been intercepted by Italian naval vessels over the past five days, under a new Italian-Libyan accord.

“The Left’s idea is of a multi-ethnic Italy,” Mr Berlusconi told a news conference. “That is not our idea, ours is to welcome only those who meet the conditions for political asylum.”

Italy was once itself a country of emigrants, but now sees itself as in the front line of an assault by poor and often desperate African, Asian and other migrants trying to get into Europe. The centre Left opposition however condemned Mr Berlusconi’s remarks as racist.

Dario Franceschini, head of the Democratic Party, the main opposition force, said “It is not for me or Berlusconi or anyone else to decide. This will be the century of multi-ethnic societies. France, Great Britain and Germany are European nations with far more immigrants than us, but they have worked for integration.”

Monsignor Mariano Crociata, secretary of the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI), defended multiculturalism as a “value” that already existed in Italy. [Is “Thou shalt accept illegal imigrants” the 11th commandment? I must have missed that one]

However the anti immigrant Northern League, which is a member of the Berlusconi coalition and controls the Interior Ministry, hailed the interception and deportation of migrants, saying said it was “a revolutionary change from the past”. Last week there was an outcry when the League suggested some Milan Metro carriages should be reserved for Milanese only, though it later said it was not a serious proposal.