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Berlusconi insult is latest in long line of gaffes

By Fred Kapner in Milan

Published: July 2 2003 19:34 | Last Updated: July 2 2003 19:34

Silvio Berlusconi's "Nazi" insult may have stunned members of the European parliament on Wednesday, but the slip is just another in a long line of gaffes by the Italian prime minister.

Mr Berlusconi's mistake of likening a German member of the European parliament to a Nazi concentration commander was compounded by his initial refusal to apologise and gauche attempt to pass it off as "irony".

His insensitivity, which may end up haunting Italy's six-month presidency of the European Union which started on Tuesday, has not been helped by the often easy ride he gets at home from the Italian press.

As owner of Italy's dominant media group, he has long relied on friendly domestic journalists to ease embarrassing moments.

Mr Berlusconi himself indirectly indicated on Wednesday that he might not be prepared for the wider international audience. In his defence, he claimed he had not meant to cause offence.

But it should have been obvious that comparing a German to a commander of a Nazi concentration camp was beyond the pale.

Mr Berlusconi had lashed out at Martin Schulz, the German Socialist deputy in the European parliament, after he questioned the Italian leader's alleged conflict of interest between his political office and his extensive media interests.

Mr Berlusconi, who made the remarks in a debate on Italy's priorities for its presidency of the EU, even suggested that his smile while addressing Mr Schulz was proof of his innocence.

However, the Italian leader's near-permanent smile may not be enough.

His humour, often self-deprecating or sexist, may be tolerated at home but it has caused discomfort abroad many times before.

Off-colour sexual remarks during a private dinner for King Juan Carlos of Spain a year ago greatly embarrassed the king, one person at the reception said.

Last autumn Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, was at a loss for words when Mr Berlusconi noted how good-looking he was and added: "I think I should introduce him to my wife because he's better-looking than [Massimo] Cacciari," a former mayor of Venice with whom gossip columnists said Mrs Berlusconi was rumoured to be having an affair.

Mr Berlusconi has also made more serious political gaffes. Just last week he announced that Italy had agreed with Libya to send troops there to stop illegal immigration to Europe. The Libyans, in delicate talks on the matter, said no such accord had been reached.

More famously, he claimed western superiority over Islam weeks after September 11 and just as the US was seeking allies in the Arab world.

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