In a highly defensive appearance before the European Parliament on Wednesday, Italy's prime minister alienated many with his Nazi jokes. But he did lay out a solid plan for his country's leadership of the EU.
Members of the European Parliament greeted Berlusconi with the words that grace every Italian court house: "Everyone is equal before the law."
His detractors have made no secret of their fears that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi would tarnish the office of the rotating European Union presidency with his scandal-plagued leadership and questionable business dealings. Indeed, as he laid out his roadmap for Italy's six-month term at the helm of Europe on Wednesday, he held true to all expectations.
Berlusconi presented his political platforms to the European Parliament in Strasbourg amid boos, jeers and protests. One Green parliamentarian compared his political ways to those of Atila the Hun, who ravaged Europe during the 5th century. Berlusconi fired back by calling his critics "tourists" in parliamentary democracy and compared one of his most vociferous detractors to a concentration camp guard.
For weeks, Martin Schulz, a Social Democratic Party member of the European Parliament from Germany, has served as an outspoken critic of Berlusconi, pointing his finger at the Italian’s personal legal troubles and major media investments as a serious conflict of interest. He hasn't minced words in his policy critiques, either, lambasting Berlusconi for recent remarks by his reforms minister that Italy's navy should be able to fire on boats filled with illegal immigrants to keep them from landing on Italian shores.
The Greens, too, were hardly welcoming of the new EU president when he took to the podium Wednesday as they held up signs with slogans like "Everyone Is Equal Before the Law," and "No Godfather for Europe."
At one point it become too much for Berlusconi.
"Mr. Schulz," Berlusconi quipped, "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." (Kapo is a reference to prisoners selected by the SS to serve as guards and complete menial jobs; they were given favorable treatment over other prisoners and were considered traitors by many.)
Later, when asked if he wanted the remark to be stricken from the record by European Parliament President Pat Cox, Berlusconi refused.
The remarks so outraged the German government that it ordered the Italian ambassador in Berlin to the office of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Members of parliament were no less outraged, and the session was suspended afterwards.
In response to Berlusconi's attack, Schulz said: "My respect for the victims of fascism will not permit me to deal with that kind of claim. But it is very hard for me accept that a politician should be exercising the role of president of the European Council if he comes out with this kind of statement when he encounters the slightest contradiction."
Berlusconi later explained that his comments were intended as an "ironic joke" and refused to apologize. Seeking to put out the wildfire on Wednesday afternoon, Berlusconi went a step further, but still fell short of apologizing when he told EU politicians meeting behind closed doors he "did not mean to offend the feelings of a country, feelings that have a historical motivation."
But Graham Watson, the leader of the Liberal Democratic group in the European Parliament, said Berlusconi's remarks "debase the presidency of the council and offend Europe."
A roadmap for Italy's EU presidency
The bitter exchange distracted attention from the real message Berlusconi came to deliver on Wednesday – how Italy planned to steer the EU during its term.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi (photo) said his country wanted to create a "new dynamic" in the transatlantic relationship and to push ahead with eastward expansion, calling for Bulgaria and Romania to be given a clear path in order to facilitate their EU membership by 2007.
The Italian prime minister also called for a "New Deal" style increase in public infrastructure investment in order to stimulate economic growth – largely through rail and other public transport projects. But he said countries should find a way to invest in infrastructure projects without resorting to Stability Pact-busting deficit spending.
But Berlusconi’s major task for the next six months is to conduct negotiations after the start of an intergovernmental conference in October that will hammer out the final draft of the EU's first constitution. Berlusconi would like to see approval of the constitution at a December summit in Rome, the site where the 1957 treaty establishing the European Community was signed.
Highlighting the importance of Europe’s role in the Middle East, Berlusconi said Brussels should push along the "road map" to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians and contribute to the reconstruction effort in Iraq in order to bring the two continents closer.
Addressing recent problems with illegal immigrants entering Europe from northern Africa, hundreds of whom have perished in accidents on rickety boats, Berlusconi called for the creation of an EU border patrol to guard its external borders as well as immigrant holding centers outside the EU. Italian officials believe that last month alone at least 3,000 illegal northern African immigrants landed on Italian shores. Now, they want Brussels to take action.
With strapped social systems across the Union and a graying population, Berlusconi also called for EU-wide measures "aimed at increasing the activity level of older workers and reducing trends toward pre-retirement" that strain federal pocketbooks. Among those measures would be a common EU approach to retirement systems.