Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is known for his outspokenness. But his latest outburst has sparked a veritable firestorm of criticism within the European Union. In an unusually rowdy session at the European Parliament yesterday, Berlusconi -- whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency -- compared a German lawmaker to a Nazi concentration-camp guard. The Germans are offended, and Berlusconi's critics are outraged. Will the storm clear quickly or will it have a real impact on the work of the EU?
Prague, 3 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Debate in the normally sedate European Parliament has rarely been so rude -- or caused such an uproar. The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, provoked the storm when he compared a German lawmaker, Martin Schulz, to a Nazi concentration-camp guard.
Schulz had earlier criticized Berlusconi over his use of a new Italian immunity law to avoid bribery charges. Berlusconi retorted by saying: "Mr. Schulz, I know there is in Italy a man producing a film on the Nazi concentration camps. I would like to suggest you for the role of kapo [guard]."
He also ridiculed Schulz's hand gestures and manner of speaking and called his critics in the European Parliament "tourists of democracy" rather than true democrats.
There was an immediate outcry among the deputies and the media across Europe. Berlusconi's comments, it was said, were a disgrace and an embarrassment. They had spoiled Italy's debut as head of the EU Presidency. It was a new blow to European unity, so soon after the rifts caused by the war in Iraq.
Today, the row spread to the German parliament, where Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder branded Berlusconi's remarks unacceptable. "I expect that the Italian prime minister [angry voices from parliament]... I expect that the Italian prime minister will formally apologize fully for this unacceptable comparison," Schroeder said.
Berlusconi said he had been joking and did not mean to offend the German people. And today he blamed the Italian opposition for orchestrating the row by planning the heckling in the European Parliament, which included other deputies holding signs criticizing Berlusconi.
Berlusconi is due shortly to speak with Schroeder on the telephone, a call he says will mend the rift. But even if Berlusconi does apologize, the damage may already have been done. So says Jorg Monar, a professor at the Sussex European Institute in Britain.
"These remarks have been made in the European Parliament and concern a member of the European Parliament. That actually casts a shadow over the credibility of the Italian presidency. The presentation of the presidency program is one of the most solemn moments in the start of the presidency. When something like that happens, it weakens the presidency, and it also creates tension between the European Parliament as an institution and the council presidency," Monar told RFE/RL.
So, fallout from Berlusconi's remark could make it harder for Italy to carry out its program pledges, like reviving the European economy or ensuring that the EU plays a stronger role on the international stage.
Monar said it's also a big setback for German-Italian ties. "I think Chancellor Schroeder and Berlusconi will in some way be able to patch this up. There may be a half- or three-quarters of an apology by Berlusconi, but I think there will be a feeling left that this Italian government is not treating Germany in the most respectful way and has clearly trampled on German feelings. It's hard to say what the longer-term impact of this may be, but certainly some damage has been done," he said.
Gianni Bonvicini of Rome's Institute of International Affairs laments that one reckless sentence by Berlusconi may have "destroyed" the Italian presidency's program. He also sees some difficulties ahead. "Clearly, it will be a little bit more difficult to manage the European Council. The heads of government and states will really check what Berlusconi will do and they will do it more carefully than before, surely. So it might provide some difficulties at the highest level," Bonvicini said.
Still, Bonvicini said he expects a return to business-as-usual once the row dies down. And he said that, despite some disquiet among Berlusconi's own allies, he doesn't expect the prime minister to suffer much political fallout at home, since his majority is still large.
But there's one other potential problem for Berlusconi. So far, European leaders have kept quiet on the topic that fueled the spat in the first place -- his use of a new immunity law to avoid bribery charges back home.
Monar said that if there are any more outbursts by Berlusconi, European leaders may break their unwritten rule not to interfere in another member state's internal political affairs.