Rotating presidency of EU to be scrapped after Nazi smear

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's Prime Minister, has put the final nail in the coffin of the EU's system of six-month rotating presidencies, as his Nazi jibe left Italy's term at Europe's helm in turmoil.

A draft constitution for the EU proposes the creation of a semi-permanent president of the European Council who would take the post currently occupied by Mr Berlusconi. Although that was being resisted by small countries, EU diplomats and officials conceded yesterday that the battle to keep the rotating presidency is effectively over, following the Italian premier's extraordinary outburst.

"People will draw conclusions from what has happened over the past few days," said one, while another added: "I was a supporter of the rotating presidency, but now I just have to shut up."

That view has the explicit support of the Swedish Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh, who argued last week: "If we had an elected chairman of the European Council, we would not have had Berlusconi as chairman. Unfortunately, he has six months in the chair ahead of him." She added that the Italian leader "is not representative of the EU".

The president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, who was left acutely embarrassed by the furore, argued: "I've been in the parliament since 1989 and I've been through 29 presidencies, and I will always remember this one, but not for the right reason."

Mr Berlusconi's attack on the German Social Democratic MEP Martin Schulz, in which he likened him to the commandant of a Nazi concentration camp, provoked almost universal outrage. The words not only broke a strong taboo but were also seen by some as an attack on the EU's fundamental values.

Forged in the aftermath of the Second World War, the central idea of European integration was to overcome the nationalism that had brought the continent into bloody conflict, and likening Germans to Nazis is strictly off-limits. So sensitive is the issue of the Second World War that the EU does not recognise armistice day as a public holiday.

While officials, diplomats and journalists often stick together in national groups and joke about national stereotypes, MEPs say they have rarely heard such jibes in private, let alone in public.

Gary Titley, leader of the Labour MEPs, said: "I don't think I have heard anything like this from Jean-Marie Le Pen [the French National Front leader]. When something like that comes from a head of government, let alone the president of the council, we are in completely uncharted territory."

Even in a domestic political context Mr Berlusconi's Nazi jibe would be unacceptable in most countries. For example, the comments that forced the resignation of the Conservative Cabinet minister, Nicholas Ridley, in 1990, seem tame in comparison with Mr Berlusconi's utterances. Mr Ridley had argued that the EU was a German plot to take over Europe.

The potential for Mr Berlusconi's words to cause damage is so great because of the effect on essential relationships, mostly notably with Berlin.

Under pressure to apologise, from Germany, the EU's most powerful nation, and three other countries, Mr Berlusconi phoned the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, on Thursday evening to explain himself. Although Mr Schröder declared the matter closed on the basis that Mr Berlusconi had apologised, the Italian Prime Minister then appeared to retract the apology on Friday, insisting he had only said he regretted any offence that might have been taken.

Lord Stockton, a Conservative MEP who shares a political affiliation in Strasbourg with Mr Berlusconi's party, believes that this bodes ill for Italy's role in negotiating between EU governments on the draft constitution for Europe.

"It is going to be extremely difficult, because Berlusconi has upset just about everyone," Lord Stockton said. "With views as diverse over the constitution as they are, the last thing we need is an inter-governmental conference that is hostile and fractious."

Mr Berlusconi's refusal to apologise to MEPs is storing up trouble meanwhile because the presidency will need the support of the parliament to approve next year's EU budget.

Mr Titley argues that, without an apology, "the relationship with the parliament will be poisoned, this row will brew over the summer and he will come back in September to be confronted by a European Parliament that is resentful and unhappy".

He added: "To get the budget through requires very good co-operation with the parliament and he won't get it if he goes on in this way. It just proves that Tony Blair is right in wanting to get rid of the rotating presidency."

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