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22nd Jan 2017

Focus

Centre-right EPP stuck with ‘sickening’ Berlusconi

  • Italian graffiti saying 'Berlusconi, go away' (Photo: Nela Lazarevic)

The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) will not expel Silvio Berlusconi from its ranks, despite his embarrassing remarks on Germany’s Nazi past, because they need his Forza Italia party to win next month’s European Parliament elections, media controlled by the former Italian premier has suggested.

“The EPP attacks (Berlusconi), but without Forza Italia it cannot win,” Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by Berlusconi’s brother Paolo, ran on its front page Tuesday (29 April).

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It referred to the previous day’s stinging criticism from the EPP election frontrunner, former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is arguably the most influential politician within the centre-right family.

“The recent statements made by Mr Berlusconi have sickened me,” Juncker said in a statement. In Berlin, Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said Berlusconi’s remarks were “so absurd that the federal government will not comment on them”.

The incident originated on Saturday, when, speaking at a campaign event for his Forza Italia party, Berlusconi recalled his infamous 2003 ‘joke,’ when he offered German Social Democrat Martin Schulz a film part as a Nazi concentration camp guard during a debate in the European Parliament.

"God forbid! Because for Germans, concentration camps did not exist," Berlusconi said on Saturday. "It's not like it was an insult, I was bantering, I was joking with my usual humour, in a very ironic way (...) I was being kind, I thought I could offer him a new job."

Schulz, the outgoing President of the European Parliament, is Juncker’s main rival in the EU election race, standing as the lead candidate of the Party of European Socialists (PES).

Most commentators interpreted the outburst as a ploy to intercept protest voters by stirring up anti-German sentiment. Berlusconi, a tax fraud convict due to start community service in a centre for the elderly, is battling to revive the fortunes of Forza Italia, stuck in third place in opinion polls behind the ruling Democratic Party and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement.

In Germany, members of his Social Democratic Party (SPD) have dared Merkel to confront her Italian ally more openly.

“It is unacceptable for Angela Merkel, in the name of party political reasons, to stay silent on the outrageous allegations of the former Italian prime minister,” SPD deputy leader Thorsten Schaefer-Guembel told dpa news agency.

But Ingeborg Graessle, an outgoing MEP from Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), has admitted to Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper that if Berlusconi’s Forza Italia were to be kicked out of the EPP, the party “would risk ending up in second place after the PES”.

“That would pave the way for Schulz to become President of the European Commission. A possibility that us German Christian Democrats are fighting against with all our forces,” she said.

In its latest forecast from 23 April, the PollWatch2014 website said the EPP could expect to win 217 seats in the EU assembly, against 208 for the PES. Forza Italia would contribute to the EPP’s tally with 15-20 MEPs.

With those figures behind him, Berlusconi remains unrepentant, snubbing an explicit request from Juncker to withdraw his comments and apologise to the German people and Holocaust survivors.

“I owe no apology to my Israeli friends,” Berlusconi said on Italy’s LA7 channel late on Monday. “Neither” should he say sorry to Germans, he added, insisting that he had said “nothing against current German citizens.”

In another TV appearance on Tuesday, on one of his family’s Mediaset channels, he said the five-term chancellor from the 1980s and 1990s Helmut Kohl was a far better leader than Merkel, and said Italians “should learn to be afraid” of Grillo, whom he compared to Marx, Lenin and Hitler.

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