Italian President demands respect in Germany
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano has, while on a trip to Germany, demanded respect for Italy and cancelled a meeting with the German opposition leader after he mocked Italian election results.
The gaffe-prone Peer Steinbrueck from the Social-Democrat party, who is challenging Chancellor Angela Merkel in general elections in September, had told a party rally in Potsdam that he was "appalled, to some extent, that two clowns have won the elections in Italy."
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He added that one of them, comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo "is a professional clown who is not even offended at being called one," while the other, ex-prime-minister Silvio Berlusconi, is "definitely a clown, with an extra kick of testosterone."
For his part, Napolitano, who, as a former Communist, is not politically close to either Grillo or Berlusconi, promptly cancelled a planned meeting with Steinbrueck.
"We respect, and naturally we demand respect, for our country," he said in a speech to Italian expats in Munich on Wednesday (27 February), before meetings with Merkel and the German President in Berlin the following day.
Steinbrueck later on called Napolitano to apologise, but the 87-year old Italian told the mass-selling Bild newspaper that even after the phone call, "a meeting was no longer possible given the remarks he had made."
The Social-Democrat leader, dubbed "Peerlusconi" by Bild by analogy with Berlusconi's own track record of putting his foot in his mouth, has had several PR problems in the run-up to the German vote.
He first tried to conceal the fact he gave well-paid speeches at meetings organised by banks. He offended low-income voters by saying he would never drink €5-wine. He has also complained that the chancellor's salary in Germany is too small.
The latest polls show him trailing 18 percent behind Merkel.
Steinbrueck on Wednesday defended his comments by saying that the theme of his Napolitano meeting was "frank discussion" and that what he said is what German people really think.
The financial markets earlier the same day seemed to agree. While Italy managed to sell all its 10-year bonds in a regular auction, it was forced to pay almost 5 percent interest - the highest level since October.
Meanwhile in Italy, Grillo has ruled out a coalition with the centre-left, calling its leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who won the majority in the lower house, a "dead man talking."
His move could augur a remarkable development - a grand coalition with Berlusconi, who campaigned on an amnesty for tax evaders and on paying back some of the taxes imposed by outgoing technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti to fall in line with EU austerity.
Monti, who did not score enough to form a government with Bersani, visited Brussels on Wednesday and met with European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso.
Himself a former commissioner who is better loved in Brussels than in Rome, Monti said in a joint statement with Barroso that more reforms are needed both at "European and national levels" to overcome the crisis.
"President Barroso [also] expressed his full confidence that Italy, as one of Europe's and the world's biggest economies, will ensure the conditions of political stability in the interest of Italy and Europe as a whole," the statement added.