Berlusconi puts EU presidency in turmoil with Nazi insult

Unrepentant Italian premier under pressure to apologise to German MEP
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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, provoked uproar and threw Italy's presidency of the EU into turmoil yesterday by likening a German MEP to a Nazi concentration camp commandant.

Mr Berlusconi was unrepentant this morning in the face of a demand from the German Chancellor for an apology. The two men are to talk on the phone this afternoon.

The Italian premier said that he viewed the matter as closed and claimed that his political oponents in Italy had orchestrated the diplomatic crisis.

Chancellor Schroeder, speaking in the German parliament in Berlin, said the comparison was "completely unacceptable...I expect the Italian premier to formally apologize for this comparison."

The comments horrified members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and were even criticised by the Gianfranco Fini, Italy's Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr Berlusconi's had been responding to the German socialist Martin Schulz, who had referred to the leader's use of an immunity law to sidestep bribery legal proceedings. Mr Berlusconi turned to the 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."

To compound the gaffe, which overshadowed the formal launch of Italy's six-month presidency of the EU, Mr Berlusconi later refused to apologise, saying the remark was intended to be ironic, something that was clear because he was smiling.

Silvio Fagiolo, Italy's ambassador to Germany, was called in by officials for Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to explain the statement. Mr Schulz said the Prime Minister of a nation once led by Benito Mussolini should not joke about Fascism.

There was pressure to raise the issue at the next summit of EU leaders as Mr Berlusconi spurned a plea from the president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, to "correct the record". Critics said the behaviour of the Italian Prime Minister in Strasbourg confirmed fears that Mr Berlusconi was ill-suited to being president of the European Council. Gary Titley, the leader of Labour's MEPs, said: "Nobody was expecting the Italian presidency to self-destruct on day two. Mr Berlusconi shooting from the hip shows his Jekyll and Hyde character; as soon as he's under pressure he loses it. How can you trust him to negotiate in the Middle East or in trade talks with the Americans?"

Later, Mr Berlusconi had a private meeting with MEPs in which he reportedly said: "I did not mean to offend the feelings of a country, feelings that have a historical motivation."