Germany's chancellor has threatened to cancel his vacation in Italy in response to a nasty letter from a top Italian tourism official. The letter described German tourists as a horde of arrogant, nationalist blondes.
Will Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's annual trip to Italy become a thing of the past?
With two major anti-German slurs from senior Italian officials within the space of a week, diplomatic tensions between Germany and Italy are heating up. First, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi compared a German politician to a Nazi concentration camp guard as he took up the rotating presidency of the European Union. Then, on Friday, a top Italian tourism official in Rome called German tourists arrogant nationalists and stereotypical blondes.
In an open letter published by La Padania, the party newspaper of the right-wing and anti-immigration Northern League, Deputy Tourism Minister Stefano Stefani described Germany as a "country intoxicated with arrogant certainties."
"We know the Germans well, these stereotyped blondes with a hyper-nationalist pride who have always been indoctrinated to be first in the class at any cost," he wrote.
After learning of the comments this week, Schröder threatened to cancel his annual trip to Italy, where he has spent his vacation for a number of years. His spokesman, Bela Anda, said the remarks were a "blanket insult to all Germans who like to spend their vacations in Italy."
The less-than-subtle German tabloid Bild, also the subject of Stefani's xenophobic tirade, lashed back on Tuesday as well, writing, "They're crazy, those Romans" and asking if Stefani had "spaghetti for brains?" In a separate editorial, the paper also made gibes at Stefani in broken German, imitating the accent of many Italians who speak German.
He also criticized the news magazine Der Spiegel for putting a picture of Berlusconi on the cover with the title "The Godfather", in reference to the prime minister’s many legal woes.
Facing heavy criticism, Stefani sought on Tuesday to defuse the controversy by publishing a second letter in La Padania. In the missive, he invited Schröder to spend time with him during his holiday in Italy so he could show the chancellor that he gets along well with Germans "who are different from (Martin) Schulz." Stefani, who was married to a German woman for 20 years, said his quotes had been taken out of context. Instead, he said, they were meant as insults against Schulz, the German Social Democrat in the European Parliament who was the subject of Berlusconi's vicious attack last week.
Schulz has been an outspoken critic of Berlusconi's conflicts of interest as simultaneous prime minister and owner of Italy's largest private broadcaster.
Local officials call for resignation
Tourism officials in the Adriatic Sea region are continuing to mobilize to undo the damage. "We're still the same friends we've always been," said Guido Pasi, tourism director for the Emilia Romagna region, which is home to the popular beach resort Rimini. The stakes are high in a region where every second visitor comes from Germany. If Schröder were to cancel his visit over the spat, officials fear, it could be disastrous for the region since it would send a symbolic gesture to other Germans if there own leader were to boycott Italy. At least 10 million Germans are estimated to travel to Italy each year, spending a total of €7 billion there.
Officials in regions along the Adriatic coastline have accused Stefani of seriously damaging the tourism industry. They have demanded that he either offer an official apology or resign from his post. Opposition politicians have made similar demands. But so far the Italian government has not officially apologized for the letter.
A half-hearted response
In a written statement, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Fattini confirmed only that there is a deep relationship that binds the Italian and German people. The controversial remarks made by the deputy minister for tourism were "unfounded" and represented Stefani's opinion only and not those of the government, Fattini wrote.
Nor did Fattini wish that the incident harm the traditional friendship between Italy and Germany. German tourists, he wrote, know that they are welcomed in Italy. But Fattini stopped short of officially apologizing on Rome's behalf for the remarks, just as Berlusconi failed to apologize for his Nazi gibe at the European Parliament in Strasbourg the previous week. Neither has Fattini or any other official in the government publicly threatened to sanction or fire Stefani for his behavior.
On Tuesday Stefani's boss, Industry Minister Antonio Marzano, also distanced himself and the Italian government from the anti-German statements.
Schröder spokesman Bela Anda said Tuesday afternoon the German government was "satisfied" with Fattini and Marzano's statements distancing the government from Stefani. But the tersely worded statement left open whether Schröder would still travel to Italy.
"In the interest of friendly relations between Italy and Germany, the federal government is assuming that the statements of both ministers represent the view of the Italian government and that they will not be revised," Anda wrote. Last week, Berlusconi backtracked from statements of regret over his statements in Strasbourg and officials in Berlin hope the same thing doesn't occur in the wake of Stefani's insults.
Many Italians hope, despite all the bad blood, the latest row will quickly disappear. "We're waiting for the chancellor with great anticipation," Palmiro Ucchielli, president of the Palmiro province. The "stupidity" of the Northern League, he said, "speaks for itself."