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Italian president visits at time of tension

President Ciampi (centre) on a walkabout in Lugano on Thursday

(Keystone)

The Italian president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, has completed an official visit to Switzerland at a time of increased tension between the two countries.

Disputes over banking secrecy and the arrest last week of two Italian parliamentarians have caused relations to sour.

Ciampi was received with full diplomatic honours in the capital, Bern, on Wednesday before meeting Swiss government ministers.

On Thursday the president travelled to canton Ticino where he gave a speech at the Italian-language university in Lugano, praising Switzerland's federalist system as a model for Europe.

"The cultural and linguistic differences between European nations and the obstacles that arise on the path to integration are no less than those confronted and overcome by the Swiss cantons," said Ciampi.

The two countries also signed an agreement on future scientific and technological cooperation.

Ceremonial

Although the Italian president's role is largely ceremonial, his visit carried extra significance.

Since 2001 when Silvio Berlusconi returned to power in Italy as prime minister, misunderstandings between the two normally friendly alpine countries have multiplied.

In the most recent incident two members of Italy's parliament, who were investigating a corruption case, were detained in Lugano for several hours after they attempted to view some documents.

Enrico Nan and Giovanni Kessler were held on suspicion of "unauthorised acts committed on behalf on another state, and spying".

Storm in a teacup

The incident caused an outcry in both Switzerland and Italy, with harsh criticism coming from some members of the Rome government.

But Swiss diplomats played down the incident. "Just a storm in a teacup," Alexis Lautenberg, the ambassador to Rome, told swissinfo.

Nevertheless, there are strong cultural ties between the two countries. Italian - spoken in canton Ticino - is one of Switzerland's official languages. And Switzerland has a sizeable Italian expatriate population of 308,000 people.

But the relationship is being put to the test at both bilateral and European levels.

Blockade

For several weeks, Italy has blocked a European Union agreement on a common policy for the taxation of savings. The delay is complicating Switzerland's bilateral negotiations with the EU over the issue and threatens to derail, or at least delay, other crucial agreements.

Officially, Berlusconi's government is not against the terms of the savings tax accord but instead has decided to use the negotiations to gain some concessions over its agriculture policy.

Banking secrecy - which Switzerland famously maintains - is another area of concern for the Italians. Rome is pushing for the repatriation of Italian funds illegally deposited in Switzerland and other countries.

Hot spot

Transport is yet another hot spot. Switzerland - the main north-south axis through the Alps - wants to limit the amount of goods transported by road. The country has been investing millions of francs in the construction of an alpine rail transport network.

"We are making a big effort in the interest of the entire Continent," Couchepin said on Wednesday.

However, with regard to rail transport, Italy has yet to catch up.

"The Italian rail infrastructure is a little bit behind compared to other countries, because in the economic boom years, Italy focused on road transport," conceded Lorenzo Farrarin, the Italian ambassador to Switzerland.

The Gotthard tunnel has also been causing controversy. Italian lorry drivers have accused Switzerland of blocking the tunnel at night and imposing measures that favour Swiss transporters.

"One could say that the current system at the Gotthard does contain discriminatory elements - it's not just about security," said Ferrarin.

swissinfo, Daniele Papacella and Isobel Johnson

In brief

Tensions have recently increased between Italy and Switzerland.

Last week, two Italian parliamentarians were detained in Lugano for several hours on suspicion of spying.

Italy has blocked a European Union agreement on the taxation of savings - a key issue in bilateral relations between Bern and Brussels - because Rome wants to gain concessions over milk quotas.

Banking secrecy and the Gotthard tunnel are also points of contention.

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