Berlusconi Takes It da Kapo at the European Parliament

I was hoping to move on to other subjects than the fitness of Silvio Berlusconi for the European Union presidency, but his insulting outburst yesterday while in the EU Parliament to present his president’s agenda naturally keeps me on this subject. And I was hoping to move on from reporting on the German press, which I’ve covered a bit disproportionally in the past several weeks, but it only seems logical and fair to report on reactions from the country whose MEP (Member of the European Parliament) was the target of Berlusconi’s insult, a defamation that touched on Germany’s sensitive Nazi past.

The incident took place in the debate after Berlusconi had made his “inaugural” address to Parliament.

German MEP Martin Schulz, deputy leader of the social democrat faction in the European Parliament, soon brought up the issue of the law Berlusconi’s government had engineered and put through the Italian parliament (discussed in my last EuroSavant post, here) giving immunity from prosecution to the top five Italian government officials, which had had the convenient effect of stopping an ongoing bribery trial against Berlusconi in Milan in its tracks. This reference apparently annoyed the Italian prime minister, who told Herr Schulz (in Italian, of course, but everyone at the EP gets simultaneous translation services) “Mr. Schulz, I know there is a producer in Italy who is making a film on Nazi concentration camps. I will suggest you for the role of kapo [i.e. a prisoner who works for the prison authorities]. You’d be perfect.”

An uproar apparently quite unprecedented for the normally-staid European legislature promptly ensued; while still up at the podium, Berlusconi was called upon by several MEPs to take back his remark, but he became huffy and defensive and refused to do so. Anyway, he said, he had meant the remark to be ironic. And so the spat soon escalated into a diplomatic dispute between two of the EU’s biggest member-states, since the German government could not stand idly by in the face of such an offense against one of its representatives and a public reference to Naziism. On Wednesday night the Italian ambassador to Germany was summoned to Bundeskanzler Schröder’s office to hear about how Berlusconi’s comments were “unacceptable” and “condemned.” At the same time, the German ambassador to Italy was called in to the Italian Foreign MInistry to hear about Martin Schulz’s offenses against Silvio Berlusconi – not to mention, it seems, against “Italian and European institutions.”

According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Berlusconi has finally come out with an apology of a sort, but directed to the German people. This does not come straight from Berlusconi himself, but from what he is reported to have said to a meeting Wednesday evening of the “People’s Party” faction of the European Parliament, the right-wing faction to which Berlusconi’s native Forza Italia party belongs. The article goes on to mention the very real fear among MEPs that the Italian premier’s conflict-of-interest problems in Italy (not only his avoiding trial by the passing of that immunity law, but also the fact that he personally owns most Italian TV stations), if not addressed or at least condemned, could infect European institutions and those of other member-states. It quotes Antonio di Pietro (now MEP, formerly a leading judge in the “clean hands” corruption investigations that swept Italy in the 1990s) as warning how the “virus of conflict-of-interest” could be “a cancerous growth on democracy.” Still, MEPs generally had decided to keep quiet initially about Berlusconi, to see what he had to say and to give him a fair chance to say it – until he lost his self-control at the podium and outrage ensued.

You’d expect the German press to show similar outrage. They do, of course, but it is mostly tempered by worry: This semester will be an important one for the European Union, there’s a lot of important business to get done, and Berlusconi is the only possible EU president whom we have to rely on to get it done. That was the tenor of a companion commentary piece in yesterday’s FAZ, entitled Nicht weiter so – “It can’t go on like this.” Interestingly, in the division the FAZ makes between “urgent” and “desirable” European projects, it puts “the strengthening of Europe and improvement in relations with America” in the former category and “the conclusion of the EU Constitution” in the latter; the editors are apparently well-aware that a December “Treaty of Rome” doesn’t have to happen, that work on the constitution can also be wrapped up in the spring. (Maybe they’re also saying that the bad will that Italy has now harvested among the rest of Europe means that the rest of Europe is not likely to allow Italy to have that prestige, no matter how smoothly the constitutional Intergovernmental Conference proceeds.) Ultimately, they conclude, those offended by the Italian premier need to think hard about how far they really want to go, how much damage to important European affairs they really want to cause; if they go too far, it could turn out to be a serious “lose-lose” proposition for everyone.

In its own commentary on the affair, with it’s hard-headed businessman’s practicality the FT Deutschland agrees: “The EU will have to learn to live with Berlusconi,” because any boycott of the current EU president would “provoke a serious crisis, which could seriously burden [EU] expansion as well as further work on the EU Constitution.” At the same time, says the FT, this ought to be a lesson that that new constitution should provide for the election – and the removal – of the president. Indeed, the proposed constitution does provide for this, and this is one element that large member-states (such as Germany, naturally) favor and to which most smaller member-states are opposed, mainly because they will lose their chance to show themselves off and impact EU proceedings directly during their turn at the presidency if the current rotating system is thereby abolished.

Die Welt adds that the fact that the Italian ambassador to Berlin was called directly into Gerhard Schröder’s office to hear Germany’s complaints – and not to the Foreign Ministry, as would be normal procedure – shows how angry the German government truly is. In fact, the newspaper reports that Schröder has already had a chance to go before the Bundestag today (Thursday) to demand that Berlusconi “apologize in all forms for the unacceptable comparison” involving Nazi concentration camps, which was “in content and in form a blunder (“eine Entgleisung“) and fully unacceptable.” Berlusconi reportedly does not get along very well with Schröder anyway – or with Jacques Chirac. (Or, as I mentioned in yesterday’s entry, with EU Commission president Romano Prodi – maybe this really isn’t the kind of guy we want for EU president!) Die Welt reports further that, as for Martin Schulz (as told to the Berliner Zeitung), an apology from Berlusconi would not be good enough. Berlusconi needs to apologize to the European Council (i.e. to his fellow EU heads of government), since he has harmed their interests with his behavior.

By the way, I wish I could reproduce for you here the head-shots of Berlusconi shown in some of the on-line newspapers (e.g. Die Welt, but also the Guardian): he’s shown with an insane smile on his face, like some sort of jokester or clown – or jackal. But I can’t – I’d have to obtain the rights, of course, so I can only offer the links. (In fact, you had to act fast to see the picture I’m talking about on the Guardian website, because it was on their homepage rather than on the article (the sub-page). I’m afraid it’s already gone – as of 1130 hours GMT on Thurs., 3 July 03. If you still happen to see Berlusconi’s face on the Guardian homepage, it’s probably not the impish, smiling picture I was talking about.)

Finally, the Süddeutsche Zeitung has some interesting reporting about Italian reaction. Naturally, Romano Prodi is speechless (“fassungslos“); this is no great day for Italy, he opines. Even the deputy Italian prime minister, Gianfranco Fini, weighs in. “Berlusconi was provoked by Herr Schulz and lost his composure,” he says. Still, he didn’t have any right “to disparage a political opponent as a Kapo,” and should apologize. Gerhard Schröder, and the Bundestag, are waiting.

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