Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Berlusconi deepens diplomatic hole

GAFFE After infuriating a German politician with a Nazi jibe, the Italian PM did himself no favors by attempting to explain his comments in fuller detail

REUTERS , ROME

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi attends a joint press conference with European Union Commission President Romano Prodi, unseen, after their talks on Friday in Rome.

PHOTO: AP

A defiant Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi refused on Friday to back down in a row he set off by comparing a German politician to a Nazi prison guard -- a furore that has tainted Italy's fledgling EU presidency.

Berlusconi triggered a diplomatic uproar with his remarks during a debate in the European Parliament on Wednesday, and has come under huge international pressure to retract them.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder demanded a full apology and spoke to Berlusconi on Thursday. Afterwards he said he considered the row closed -- but on Friday Berlusconi felt compelled to set the record straight.

"I did not make an apology. I spoke of my sadness over a comment that was interpreted badly, but it was only intended as an ironic comment," Berlusconi told a news conference in Rome after a meeting with the EU's executive commission.

"I'm sorry if this offended the sensitivity of someone, but sensitivity cannot be a one-way street," he added, standing alongside European Commission President Romano Prodi, who was stony-faced and said nothing about the dispute.

The German government said later it had nothing to add to earlier comments that the case was closed and Berlusconi himself said he also considered the controversy over and done with.

The European Parliament, however, is still demanding an explanation and Europe's press is up in arms.

"Berlusconi will be under very close surveillance by his peers and by the EU institutions from now on," said John Palmer, director of the European Policy Centre think tank.

Prodi and his team of commissioners were in Rome to discuss Italy's ambitious program for its six-month EU presidency, which only started on July 1 and has been completely overshadowed by the Nazi row.

Berlusconi delivered his insult after Schulz, in a debate, drew attention to alleged conflicts of interest between the Italian prime minister's political position and his extensive media holdings and criticized a rush immunity law that saved Berlusconi from a corruption trial.

"I underscored forcefully to Schroeder that I was gravely offended and so was my country," Berlusconi told reporters.

He then launched into a long explanation of the role he had in mind for Schulz, referring to the 1960s US sitcom Hogan's Heroes, which featured a clownish Nazi guard named Schultz.

He added, however, that he had "profound appreciation and respect for the European Parliament."

But European Parliament President Pat Cox said a phone call to Schroeder was not enough to close the matter.

"The incident happened on the floor of the European Parliament, not in Berlin. There is a need for clarification by Berlusconi with the European Parliament in order to bring final closure to this matter," Cox said through his spokesman.

An Italian minister shot back in an open letter to Cox that he and Schulz should be apologizing, not Berlusconi.

"Our prime minister has already expressed regret for the words he said," Minister for Parliamentary Relations Carlo Giovanardi said. "But it doesn't seem to me that either Schulz or yourself have expressed one word of regret for the insults."

The row has given Europe's already critical columnists the chance to question Berlusconi's moral credentials to lead the EU and has put his colleagues on guard.

Germany's liberal Sueddeutsche Zeitung said he "could hardly have delivered better evidence for all the negative judgements and prejudice against him." France's right-wing Le Figaro said he presented a "deplorable image of Italy abroad."

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