Maybe Silvio Berlusconi had an overdose of the 1960s American tv series „Hogan’s Heroes„, in which a stereotypically imbecile Tscherman POW camp guard named Hans Schultz (played by John Banner) is the prime target of allied humour. Maybe he is just bad with German surnames and somehow mixed up Schultz with Schulz while not actually trying to offend the vice chairman of the socialist Parliamentary group in the European Parliament, German MEP Martin Schulz, by saying – according to the Guardian –
„Mr Schulz, I know there is in Italy a man producing a film on the Nazi concentration camps. I would like to suggest you for the role of leader. You’d be perfect.“
Or maybe he did try to insult Mr Schulz. Mr Berlusconi was given the opportunity to retract his statement but refused to do so, even in light of MEPs shouting in the usually rather calm chamber. The row was caused by Mr Schulz wondering about the political effects of Mr Berlusconi’s media empire which, in conjunction with political control over RAI gives him a 80-90% share of mind in the Italian television market.
Welcome to Berlusconia.
I suppose a lot of people expected some sort of scandal along the way, but few will have expected it already on day two of the current six-month Italian Presidency of the European Union. One really has to wonder why he lost himself like this – he may be in control of televised opinion and the parliamentary majority in Italy and this may keep him from being criminally punished for the stuff he did to become what he became – but Europe is a different ballgame. The unique, and admittedly questionable, Italian balance of power, should have prompted him to keep as low a profile on the European stage as possible and silently manage affairs in a way that would somehow placate critics.
His presidency would have been severely scrutinized anyway – and rightly so – but following this start, he will either be forced to stay under deck entirely or face vocal critisicm every time he will open his mouth. Either way, his presidency will be ineffetive.
Mr Schulz‘ reaction following today’s incident is probably an accurate reflection of many MEPs‘ opinion – (quote according to the Guardian)
„My respect for the victims of fascism will not permit me to deal with that kind of claim at all … It is very difficult for me to accept that a council president [Mr Berlusconi] should be exercising this office at all when he comes out with this kind of statement.“
Well, we know he will. It’s bad timing, sure. But while he can’t do much damage to the EU, the amount of criticism he is likely to face in the coming months is likely going to strain his stand in Italy, too.
So maybe, one day, we will be able to say that, first, he lost his cool…
Update: Spiegel online reports that Berlusconi, speaking to the conservative Parliamentary party at the EP, stated that he was sorry „in case he had hurt the feelings of the German people.“
Update: Henry Farell thinks Berlusconi could have given the EP the opportunity to stage an institutional power struggle –
„It’s also leading to a test of strength between the institutions of the EU. The President of the Socialist party in the Parliament, who is coincidentally Italian, is painting this as a grave crisis in Parliament-Council relations, saying that Berlusconi needs to issue a formal apology to the Parliament on behalf of the Council. If the Parliament gets this formal apology (don’t hold your breath), it’ll be a major precedent – the Parliament will have succeeded in holding the Council accountable for its actions – just like a normal Parliament does. Even if the Parliament doesn’t get its way, it will very likely try to push this as far as it can. The Parliament’s current President, Pat Cox, is the same guy who engineered the en-masse resignation of the European Commission some years back, when he was head of the European Liberals. Cox knows how to use political crises to augment Parliament’s powers.“