ROME, Nov 2 (Reuters) Italy's centre-left government, long accused by foes of being soft on immigration, has toughened its posture with a decree allowing police to expel fellow European Union citizens who are believed to be dangerous to society.
The decree by Prime Minister Romano Prodi came into force for the first full day on Thursday and followed a spate of violent crimes in Italy -- many blamed on immigrants from Romania, which joined the EU this year.
''In the first seven months of the year, Romanians made up 75 per cent of the arrests of those who raped, stole, killed. We clearly have a specific problem,'' said Rome's Mayor Walter Veltroni, citing crime statistics in the nation's capital.
Prodi, a former head of the European Commission, noted that crimes by Romanians are ''not just a problem involving Italy'' and suggested he might discuss the matter with other states.
Battling the tide of illegal immigrants has long been a rally cry of Italy's opposition centre-right, which lost to Prodi's left-leaning coalition in elections last year.
But Prodi's cabinet sent to parliament a package of security legislation this week that included the expulsion measure.
Then, sensing urgency, Prodi rammed through the measure by decree at an emergency cabinet meeting late on Wednesday after police arrested a Romanian man over the attack and rape of an Italian naval officer's wife.
She is in a deep coma, and her plight has gripped Italians and led news reports on Thursday.
Romanian Interior Minister Cristian David urged Italy against policies based on isolated cases.
''We're also pained by what happened but we also think these are isolated, exceptional cases that damage the image of our country and our citizens,'' he told Italian state television RAI.
ISOLATED CASES EU citizens are allowed to travel freely across borders, but Italian officials say the new expulsion powers are permitted under European Union rules.
Under the decree, police would be given the power to expel EU citizens considered to be dangerous to society, and those who returned illegally could be jailed for up to three years.
No trial would be necessary before an expulsion and justifications could include past criminal convictions or even lack of income, an interior ministry spokesman told Reuters.
Italian officials have long urged Bucharest to help them counter a surge of Romanian immigrants, who now make up Italy's biggest foreign immigrant community.
A steady stream of politicians visited the Rome hospital where the woman was being treated on Sunday. One centre-right leader criticised Prodi for moving too slowly with the decree.
''The government should be ashamed,'' chided Gianfranco Fini, head of the opposition National Alliance party.
''Better late than never.'' Reuters SZ DB0900