STRASBOURG, France — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi rocked his own debut as head of the European Union on Wednesday when he stirred outrage by comparing a critical German lawmaker to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
Berlusconi’s remark, which he insisted was as an ironic joke, sparked fury in the European Parliament and embarrassed EU officials, overshadowing the presentation of Italy’s priorities for its six-month presidency, which began Tuesday.
The outburst fueled the doubts of those who have questioned Berlusconi’s suitability to lead the 15-nation bloc, given the conservative billionaire-turned-politician’s legal problems and volatile character.
Berlusconi later said he did not mean to offend German feelings, but he declined to retract the comment or apologize to Social Democratic Member of European Parliament Martin Schulz.
The flare-up came after Schulz criticized an alleged conflict of interest between the political role of Italy’s richest man and his extensive media empire and deplored outspoken comments on immigration by Italo reforms minister Umberto Bossi.
“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. You’d be perfect,” Berlusconi exclaimed to jeers in the chamber.
Berlusconi later told center-right EU parliamentarians he regretted that his words had hurt the feelings of the German people.
The Italian Foreign Ministry summoned the German ambassador late Wednesday for urgent talks. Earlier, the German government called in the Italian ambassador in Berlin to tell him that Berlusconi’s comments were unacceptable.
The incident marred what began as a suave introduction to the Italian presidency, with a carefully crafted speech pledging to revive a stagnant Euro economy. But Berlusconi showed a different face in an impromptu reaction to MEPs’ criticisms of his legal problems, media interests and government’s immigration policies.
“We have just seen the presidency self-destructing on day two,” said Gary Titley, leader of British Labour MEPs. “As soon as you put pressure on him, he loses it,” he said, adding that the EU could not rely on Berlusconi to represent it on the world stage if he could not control his Jekyll and Hyde nature.
The Italian leader, who had been on trial for allegedly bribing judges over a 1980s business deal, just rushed a law through the Italian Parliament granting himself and other top officials immunity from prosecution while in office.