Fri, Jul 04, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Italy's PM sparks German anger

BAD START Friends and foes alike are shocked by Silvio Berlusconi's rude rebuke of a German parliamentarian on the first day that Italy took over the presidency of the EU


German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder demanded a formal apology Thursday from Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for what he condemned as a "totally unacceptable" Nazi jibe.

"The Italian prime minister thought it right to make a Nazi comparison to a German colleague," Schroeder told the German parliament.

"This comparison, this remark, is a mistake in form and content and totally unacceptable, and I expect the Italian prime minister formally to apologise for this unacceptable comparison," he added to loud applause.

The outspoken Berlusconi outraged his domestic critics and prominent political allies alike on Wednesday after comparing a heckling German member of the European parliament (MEP) with a Nazi death camp guard.

A mortified Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini, who flanked Berlusconi as he outlined to the Strasbourg assembly Italy's plans for its six-month presidency of the EU, said, "It would have been better if he apologized."

It was the worst possible start to Italy's six-month term at the EU helm and came after Berlusconi had survived an onslaught by European media openly questioning his moral fitness to lead the 15-nation bloc, given his ongoing trial for corruption in Italy.

The billionaire media magnate lost his patience when German MEP Martin Schulz accused him of exporting his conflicts of interest at home to the rest of the EU.

"A producer [in Italy] is now shooting a film about the Nazi concentration camps," Berlusconi shouted back at Schulz.

"I propose you to play the role of Capo," he said, referring to the traditional name for a guard chosen by the Nazi SS from among camp detainees.

"Berlusconi has offended the honor of the only European parliament, comparing [Schulz] to a concentration camp boss just because he was German," said Antonio Di Pietro, a former anti-corruption magistrate who leads the Italy of Values party.

"What shame. Let's hope that the Italian [EU] presidency ends soon," he added.

"We haven't started well," said center-left opposition leader Francesco Rutelli.

Berlusconi's outburst drew an immediate sharp rebuke from the German government.

A government spokesman said Italy's ambassador to Berlin had been summoned and told that Berlusconi's outburst was "unacceptable and rejected by the German government."

Olaf Scholz, the general secretary of Germany's ruling Social Democratic Party, said the Nazi era was not something to be joked about, even in irony.

"The countless numbers of people who fell victim to the Nazi dictatorship, including many Social Democrats, forbids all irony," Scholz said.

Enrique Baron Crespo, head of the Socialists grouping in the European Parliament, demanded a formal apology from the Berlusconi.

Romano Prodi, the Italian president of the EU's executive Commission and Berlusconi's rival on Italy's political stage, declined to comment extensively on Berlusconi's outburst. But asked if it was a great day for Italy, he said, "No."

Berlusconi later told a group of European conservative parties that he meant no offence to the German people. But he made no personal apology to Schulz and his foreign ministry summoned the German ambassador to Rome to complain, saying that Schulz had delivered an "unacceptable insult."

"The statements made today by euro deputy Martin Schulz at the assembly in Strasbourg constitute a serious and unacceptable insult to the dignity of the president of the council Silvio Berlusconi and to Italian and European institutions," a foreign ministry statement said

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