Did he or didn’t he apologize? Berlusconi said on Friday he did not offer Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schröder an apology for a Nazi slur he made in the EU parliament on Wednesday.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is all smiles and not one bit apologetic on Friday.
Just as things looked like they were finally calming down, he’s done it again. Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who took over the European Union’s rotating presidency this week, has stumbled back into the political storm with his speak first-think later manners.
Two days after he shocked Europe by likening a German member of the European parliament to a Nazi concentration camp guard, the offense is still reverberating across the continent. Compounding matters, it appears he’s ignited the next round of indignation by back-tracking on his previous expression of "regret."
On Thursday, Berlusconi seemed to have made a gesture of conciliation by admitting regret for his slur against the German Social Democrat Martin Schulz in a publicly-announced telephone conversation with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
"He expressed regret for the choice of this expression and comparison. I explained to him that as far as I am concerned this ends the affair," Schröder said at a brief news conference following the conversation with Berlusconi.
Schröder had demanded a full apology from the Italian prime minister for his "totally unacceptable" Nazi taunt. Schröder called the remark, in which Berlusconi claimed Schulz would be perfect for a film role as a Nazi guard "a mistake in form and content."
A half apology or non at all?
But on Friday Berlusconi withdrew his apology, claiming his statements of "regret" did not, in fact, amount to an apology.
"Yesterday I made no apology," he said defiantly at a press conference in Rome, which was initially intended to set the tone of the Italian EU presidency for the next six months. Instead, the meeting was overshadowed by a diplomatic imbroglio of Berlusconi’s own making.
The outspoken media baron-cum politician reiterated on Friday that in his telephone call to Schröder he had "strongly underlined" how offended he had been by Schulz’s criticism, and had "expressed regret" if his remarks, which were intended as ironic jokes, had been "misinterpreted."
And not one to simply let matters rest, Berlusconi dove even further into the fire by trying to rationalize his quip by saying Schulz reminded him of a character in the 1960s U.S. television series "Hogan’s Heroes."
Reviving German stereotypes
"There was a Sergeant Schultz who shouted a lot but at the end of the day was a good guy even though the prisoners tried to pull one over him all the time," the prime minister said in front of journalists and EU Commission President Romano Prodi on Friday.
The comedy series, which ran in the U.S. from 1965 to 1971, depicted the antics of American soldiers held in Stalag 13, a German prisoner-of-war camp. The character named Schulz was a bumbling, rather rotund German guard, whom the prisoners out-tricked in every episode.
Although Friday’s comparison to the Schulz in "Hogan’s Heroes" is more positive than the role Berlusconi originally had sketched out for the German EU parliamentarian – that of a "Kapo" or prisoner appointed by the Nazis to guard the concentration camps – the comments still reflect the Italian leader’s negative stereotypes of Germany.
A question of semantics
As the news of his latest verbal blunder began to spread, it became clear on Friday that Berlusconi’s qualified apology to Schröder was not to be the last word on the matter.
The office of European Parliament President Pat Cox told the press that " these regrets [by Berlusconi] amount to progress, but it’s to the European Parliament that Mr. Berlusconi must present his excuses in public." The prime minister’s apology must be "made publicly and to the parliament," the statement from Cox said.
Schulz, the target of the Nazi slur, said Friday’s explanation and half-apology would not suffice. "If Berlusconi were to say: People I am wrong, it won’t be repeated, then this incident is settled. It has to be made clear to him, this is not a boxing match. An institution has been offended," the parliamentarian said on Deutschland Radio.
As for the German government, chief spokesman Bela Anda said Berlusconi’s expression of regret "was interpreted generally to mean an apology. The rest is just semantics, questions that we don’t want to get involved in." Neither Chancellor Schröder nor Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer would comment on Berlusconi’s most recent statements. For them, Anda said, the issue is resolved.
"I hope very much that there is someone in close contact with the Italian prime minister, who can give him good advice," Anda concluded.