'I'm the most persecuted man in Italy,' says Berlusconi

'This image of my personality in the media is one I don't recognise. It's the opposite of the way I am'
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Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's richest and most powerful man, has made an extraordinary defence of his much-criticised leadership in which he describes himself as his country's most persecuted man and lashes out at foreign media.

The comments came just hours after the Italian premier forced a junior minister, Stefano Stefani, to quit for insulting German tourists and thereby prompting Germany's Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to cancel his Italian holiday.

During an hour-long question and answer session with foreign journalists, Mr Berlusconi denied accusations of unpredictability - but unveiled a surprise proposal to turn the European Commission into a true government of Europe. At one point he argued that his image abroad was so distorted it was as if someone else was committing crimes that could be blamed on him.

Talking into the early hours of yesterday in the opulent Villa Madama in Rome, the Italian Prime Minister gave an unscripted speech that was a bizarre blend of showmanship, political insight, exaggeration and paranoia.

Mr Berlusconi said the delay in forcing the resignation of Mr Stefani, who claimed that Germans were arrogant "blond hyper-nationalists", arose because Italy's political system "doesn't give the Prime Minister the power to make the under-secretary resign". Mr Schröder will visit Italy next year, Mr Berlusconi said, declaring the rift between Rome and Berlin closed.

The crisis between the two nations erupted 10 days ago when Mr Berlusconi compared a German MEP to a Nazi concentration camp guard. Over a four-course dinner, during which he ate only vegetables and drank less than a glass of wine, Mr Berlusconi told journalists that Italians can joke about their country's fascist past, and that he failed to realise that this was taboo in Germany.

While speaking about plans for the EU presidency, Mr Berlusconi lived up to his reputation for departing from the script, calling for the creation of a European government with each prime minister, while retaining his job as a national premier, taking on a portfolio and replacing a European Commissioner - an idea unlikely to gain support and certain to horrify British Eurosceptics.

He also demonstrated his trademark line in self-deprecating humour, recalling how Margaret Thatcher had urged him once to avoid reading the press. "I asked for only positive articles to be shown," he said, "and nothing arrived for 15 days."

But his sense of humour was distinctly lacking when questioned about his image in the foreign media, something he regards with "bitterness". A (now suspended) corruption case against him was, he said, politically motivated, and the politicisation of the legal system constituted a "cancer in our democracy".

"No Italian has ever been so persecuted as myself," he said, claiming the judiciary "tried to eliminate Signor Berlusconi as it eliminated all the leaders of the centre right".

Despite his ownership of the Mediaset TV empire, influence over state TV and control of some newspapers, Mr Berlusconi claimed that "85 per cent of the Italian press is against this government. If there is someone who is the subject of satirical attack on TV it is me. This image of my personality and my way of acting is one I don't recognise. It is the opposite of the way I am.

"I am held in great esteem by the citizens. I am an expressive sort of person. I like joking and saying smart things. I like collaborating with my colleagues. Seeing an image of Berlusconi so different from what it is, I think this is someone else, not me - someone else going around Europe committing crimes so they can be reported in the European journals."

Asked he if was too unpredictable to lead the EU for six months, he replied: "When I read the articles in the foreign newspapers I see someone who is the opposite of what I am. If there is someone who is moderate and well-balanced, that is me. I am an innovator. Being an innovator does not mean being unpredictable or even dangerous."