Silvio Berlusconi is renowned for being unpredictable, outspoken and gaffe-prone, but even his worst enemies did not expect him to wreak such havoc on the second day of Italy's EU presidency.
For almost three hours in the European Parliament, the Italian Prime Minister presented his reasonable face, delivering a carefully drafted and anodyne speech, then listening politely to MEPs. But when he gave an unscripted response, the mask slipped and Mr Berlusconi committed what the leader of Labour's MEPs called "the fastest act of political suicide the EU has known".
Mr Berlusconi's suggestion that a German MEP could play the part of a Nazi concentration camp commandant in an Italian film caused uproar. His refusal to apologise left the president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, with a political embarrassment, and provoked diplomatic protests from Berlin.
Little wonder that the Italian Deputy Prime Minister, Gianfranco Fini, sitting on Mr Berlusconi's right and who represents the post-fascist Alleanza Nationale, was left stony faced. Mr Fini later disassociated himself from his boss, publicly rebuking the Prime Minister for failing to apologise.
The speech that provoked Mr Berlusconi's extraordinary outburst came from the German socialist MEP Martin Schulz. He focused on comments by Umberto Bossi, a member of Mr Berlusconi's coalition government, who has suggested boats carrying migrants to Italian shores should be shot at by the navy. This, Mr Schulz suggested, was worse than anything said by members of Austria's notorious far-right Freedom Party, led by Jörg Haider, and contradicted sentiments enshrined in the EU's charter of fundamental rights. "You are required as President of the [European] Council to defend these values," Mr Schulz said. "Defend these values against your own minister, then."
A second barrage from Mr Schulz reminded Mr Berlusconi that, when he was an MEP, efforts to lift his legal immunity were stalled long enough to allow him to escape proceedings against him then.
Mr Berlusconi responded with an incoherent, rambling speech that included a tirade about the strength of Italy's cultural heritage and a barrage of irrelevant statistics. Italy has, Mr Berlusconi told baffled MEPs, 100,000 monuments and churches, 3,500 archeological sites and 40,000 historical buildings. Then, abruptly, he turned to the German MEP and said: "Mr Schulz, I know there is a producer in Italy who is making a film on the Nazi concentration camps. I will suggest you for the role of commandant. You'd be perfect." Uproar was immediate but Mr Berlusconi continued, attacking other critics as "tourists" to democracy.
Mr Schulz hit back, saying he would not respond out of respect for the victims of Nazism. Mr Berlusconi was forced to wait a full minute as MEPs applauded. He showed no awareness of the scale of his blunder, refusing to retract, saying his comments were made "with irony and he [Mr Schulz] made his with malice".
The day had started well for Mr Berlusconi. A protest by a dozen Green MEPs waving placards as the Italian Prime Minister began speaking at 9am fell flat. His initial speech was even greeted with polite applause. And for most of the morning he seemed incapable of living up to his awful billing. Not for the first time, and almost certainly not for the last, he managed to surprise.
WIT AND WISDOM OF SILVIO BERLUSCONI
* "The founders of Rome were Romulus and Remulus ..."
* "We must be aware of the superiority of our civilisation, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and - in contrast to Islamic countries - respect for religious and political rights ... The West will continue to conquer peoples, even if it means a confrontation with another civilisation, Islam, firmly entrenched where it was 1,400 years ago."
* "If I, taking care of everyone's interests, also take care of my own, you can't talk about a conflict of interest."
* "I don't need to go into office for the power. I have houses all over the world, stupendous boats ... beautiful airplanes, a beautiful wife, a beautiful family ... I am making a sacrifice."
THE LIGHTNING ROD
For Martin Schulz, the MEP who drew the wrath of the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, yesterday was a political coup beyond his wildest dreams.
For months Mr Schulz, a loyal supporter of Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, has been campaigning unofficially to become the leader of the socialist group of MEPs after the next European elections (he is now vice-president). Little could stand him in better stead than to be attacked so publicly and crudely by Mr Berlusconi.
Known as hard-working and conscientious, the balding, bearded MEP comes from the Social Democrats' North-Rhine Westphalia heartland. He relies on the support of the traditional left and took an anti-war stance during the Iraq crisis.
Yesterday, he was centre stage in Strasbourg, holding a press conference withsenior socialist MEPs. "The prime minister of a country where Benito Mussolini was head of state may not make ironic comments related to Fascism," he argued.
"If you have a president [of the European Council] who loses his temper on such a small thing, one wonders what will happen in the future."
Mr Schulz, 49, was mayor of Würselens and has a local power-base in Aachen, but he is hardly a household name in Germany. Yesterday may change that.Reuse content