Rome, July 4 (Reuters): A defiant Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi refused today to put to rest the row he set off by comparing a German politician to a Nazi prison guard — a furore that has cast a shadow over Italy’s infant EU presidency.
Berlusconi triggered diplomatic uproar with his remarks during a debate in the European Parliament on Wednesday, and has come under huge international pressure to retract.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder demanded a full apology and spoke to Berlusconi yesterday.
Afterwards he said he considered the row closed — but today Berlusconi declined the chance to be equally conciliatory. “I did not make an apology. I spoke of my sadness over a comment that was interpreted badly, but it was only intended as an ironic comment,” Berlusconi told a news conference in Rome after a meeting with the EU’s executive commission.
“I’m sorry if this offended the sensitivity of someone, but sensitivity cannot be a one-way street,” he added, standing alongside European Commission president Romano Prodi, who was stony-faced and said nothing about the row.
The German government said later it had nothing to add to earlier comments from chief spokesman Bela Anda, who told a news conference that Schroeder’s conversation with Berlusconi yesterday had laid the issue to rest.
“The wider political dimensions were cleared up and the chancellor considers the case closed,” Anda said.
This might be wishful thinking, with the European Parliament still demanding an explanation and Europe’s press up in arms.
Prodi and his team of commissioners were in Rome to discuss Italy’s ambitious programme for its six-month EU presidency, which only started on July 1 and has been completely overshadowed by the Nazi row.
Berlusconi delivered his insult after Schulz, in a debate, drew attention to his legal woes and to alleged conflicts of interest between his position and his extensive media holdings.
“I underscored forcefully to Schroeder that I was gravely offended and so was my country,” Berlusconi said.
He then launched into a long explanation of the role he had in mind for Schulz, referring to the 1960s US sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, which featured a clownish Nazi guard named Shultz.
He added, however, that he had“profound appreciation and respect for the European Parliament”.
But European Parliament President Pat Cox said a phone call to Schroeder was not enough to close the matter.
”The incident happened on the floor of the European Parliament, not in Berlin. There is a need for clarification by Berlusconi with the European Parliament in order to bring final closure to this matter,” Cox said through his spokesman.
The row has given Europe's already sceptical columnists the chance to question Berlusconi's moral credentials to lead the EU.
Germany's liberal Sueddeutsche Zeitung said he“could hardly have delivered better evidence for all the negative judgements and prejudice against him”. France's right-wing Le Figaro said he presented a“deplorable image of Italy abroad”.
Britain's conservative Times was one of the few to put the blame elsewhere. It said the row was“wholly artificial and mostly party political” and accused Schroeder of a“calculated exploitation of Signor Berlusconi's unpopularity” to bolster his own government.
(Additional reporting by Antonio Denti and Gabriele Pileri in Rome; Carsten Lietz and Lisa Jucca in Brussels)