The chancellor's scrapping of his Italian holiday following insulting remarks by an Italian minister earned him plaudits as well as criticism, but fears remain whether diplomatic ties can weather the current crisis.
Chancellor Schröder and his wife Doris will be swapping the charms of the Adriatic this year for the limited attractions of Hanover.
Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s cancellation of his holiday to the Adriatic coast in Italy was greeted with hoops of joy by Germany’s largest-selling daily Bild on Thursday.
"Basta! The chancellor has enough of pasta!" screamed Bild. "Ciao, bella Italia!" The tabloid also printed a coupon, "Fax this uncouth man out of office!", which readers could send to the Italian embassy demanding the removal of Italian deputy tourism minister Stefano Stefani (photo), who called German tourists "hypernationalistic, blond beach invaders," earlier in the week.
Northern League Italian politician Stefano Stefani.
But unrestrained enthusiasm over the chancellor’s boycott of Italy to spend his holiday was largely limited to the sensational Bild. Though the paper cited a survey by national pollsters Emnid which showed that 14 percent of Germans would avoid Italian restaurants after Italian Premier Berlusconi’s controversial Nazi slur last week, several commentators, politicians and media alike likened the chancellor’s move to a populist gimmick and said it merely confirmed anti-German stereotypes.
"Irresponsible populism" and "overreaction"
Elmar Brok, a representative of the opposition Christian Democrats at the EU forum drawing up a new constitution, accused Schröder of damaging ties with Rome just as his anti-war stance had done earlier in the year with Washington. Brock accused Schröder of "irresponsible populism."
"Even if individual politicians talk nonsense, nations should not be brought against each other," he said.
Michael Kahn-Ackermann, head of the Goethe Institut in Rome told Reuters, "We Germans here in Italy would have liked politicians to have reacted with more of a sense of humor, if only to counter the prejudice that Germans are boring."
Similar views were echoed in several of Germany’s leading newspapers. "Germans and their government should be self-confident enough to ignore the stupid comments of a subordinate Italian politician," business daily Handelsblatt wrote. "Something like this should not happen between two states which cooperate so closely in the EU and the single currency."
Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung commented that Schröder’s move was making a mountain out of a molehill. And even the local paper in Schröder’s hometown Hanover, where he will now spend his holiday, queried, "We were surprised that our chancellor took the words of any old junior minister so seriously. Hasn’t he overreacted?"
Holiday in Rom, Germany, rather than Rome, Italy?
As fears grow among Italy’s tourism industry of a possible fallout from the deepening diplomatic crisis (almost 10 million Germans visit Italy each year, spending more than eight billion euros), the German chancellor has been flooded with offers for alternative holiday destinations.
Kurt Beck, state premier of Rheinland-Palatinate, invited Schröder to Rom, Germany, rather than Rome, Italy. "I have heard it said that Rom in Rheinland-Palatinate is an idyllic, tranquil little place that is guaranteed to welcome outsiders, and where you can really relax," Beck said.
Even Pawel Lewandowski, head of the Polish tourist board, invited Schröder and his family to visit Poland’s version of "Tuscany" instead. "Millions of Germans have visited Poland in past years and we can only confirm that they are always welcome as friendly, pleasant and open neighbors," Lewandowski said in an open letter to the chancellor. "Reciprocal visits contribute to reducing existing prejudices and helping Europe grow together." Similar offers poured in from Austria, Denmark and a clutch of local German hoteliers.
German-Italian ties badly damaged?
But the agonizing over where the German chancellor will spend his summer vacation aside, there are serious fears whether the German-Italian relationship is on the rocks following a double set of insults hurled at Germany last week.
Gernot Erler, a Social Democrat foreign policy expert, said in a radio interview the unfortunate Italian comments could derail the European Union and damage Italy’s six-month EU presidency. "It could lead to the whole European process, which really advanced in the last half year under Greece’s excellent leadership, grinding to a halt. That could also create a bad atmosphere which could even have economic consequences," he said.
Italian ambassador to Germany Silvio Fagiolo rushed to allay fears that the ongoing row could have a negative effect on German-Italian ties. The ambassador said in a speech in Berlin Thursday that the two countries had too many things in common especially in European politics for ties to nosedive. "Neither of the two sides have indicated that it would negatively affect the diplomatic relationship," he said.
Meanwhile in Italy...
The repercussions of the snowballing crisis show no signs of dying down in Italy. Tourism minister Stefani finds himself in the eye of a diplomatic storm after making his derogatory comments on German tourists, saying they are "indoctrinated to feel top of the class whatever the situation."
On Friday opposition members of the conservative Italian parliament called for his sacking for the "gravity, inappropriateness and irresponsibility of his statements." The liberal opposition said, "these statements have done grave damage to Italy’s image," while the governor of the Italian region where Schröder would have stayed compared Stefani’s comments to a natural disaster. "We intend to ask for political compensation for the serious damage inflicted on our region," he said.
Stefani, a member of the far-right Northern League however has refused to apologize. "I don’t hold anything against the Germans. I had a German wife for 20 years," he said. "But on certain types of Germans I haven’t changed my mind," he added.