It takes only a Holocaust joke to bring the ideal of a united Europe dangerously close to a federalist farce. Italy’s presidency of the European Union was kicked off to a distinctly noir beginning last Wednesday at Strasbourg. The Italian prime minister and new EU president, Mr Silvio Berlusconi, chose the European parliament, of all places, to liken the pacifist leader of the German social democrats, Mr Martin Schulz, to a Nazi commandant in the camps. Amidst the furore which ensued, Mr Berlusconi has, quite unapologetically, tried to explain the nature of his irony to his fellow Europeans: Italians are given to such jokes because they know how to laugh about “that kind of tragedy”. Germany is offended, but its chancellor has decided not to make too much of the incident.
As European neo-fascism goes, Mr Berlusconi is an entertaining new addition to the Le Pen-Haider-Fortyun pantheon. He is Italy’s richest man, most of his money being made from newspapers and private television channels. In a country where the average person watches more than four hours of television a day, Mr Berlusconi’s control over the media — including the independent broadcaster, RAI — is perceived by many as grossly inimical to the practice of democracy. He heads a right-wing coalition led by his party, Forza Italia, named after a football chant roughly translated as “Come on, Italy!”. The head of another party in the ruling coalition, and Mr Berlusconi’s stalwart supporter, recently suggested that coast-guards should open fire on the boats which sneak illegal immigrants into Italy. Mr Berlusconi’s government is also trying to push through an immunity law which would protect Italy’s five highest-ranking officials — including the prime minister, of course — from trial while in office. Mr Berlusconi argued that this was necessary to undo the “communist threat” posed by the move, within the judiciary, to crack down on corruption in the government since the early Nineties, an evil widely seen as endemic to the modern Italian state. There are bribery and other charges against the prime minister himself which this new law looks designed to prevent from being brought to court. And this is what Mr Schulz was pointing out in parliament, to be told by Mr Berlusconi that he was like a servile German Kampo. However, the fact remains that Mr Berlusconi, like most fascists, is a democratically elected leader, and that Italy perfectly qualifies to be part of, and now head, the EU. Perhaps the EU’s new constitution should say something about a truly pan-European sense of irony which would know what to do when a Nazi joke pops up again in parliament.