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Controversy Dogs Berlusconi at EU Debut - 2003-07-02


Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has laid out his country's plans for the European Union during its tenure in the EU presidency. His comments came in a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. But the Italian leader might have detracted from his own message when he suggested that one of his parliamentary critics take on a motion picture role as a Nazi concentration camp commander.

It was not an auspicious debut for someone who is supposed to set the EU agenda over the next semester.

As Mr. Berlusconi strode into the European Parliament, several members of the Green Party held up signs saying everyone is equal before the law, an allusion to the Italian leader's use of an immunity law to avoid bribery charges in Italy that date back to 1985. Another sign said no godfather for Europe, a reference to this week's edition of the German news magazine Der Spiegel's cover portraying Mr. Berlusconi as a mafia don.

During a question and answer period after Mr. Berlusconi's speech, a German socialist member of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, criticized what he said was a conflict of interest between Mr. Berlusconi's control of most of Italy's private television stations and his job as prime minister. Although he kept his cool during criticism from other members of parliament, the mercurial Italian leader could not resist a jibe at Mr. Schulz.

"Mr. Schulz, I know that in Italy there is a producer producing a film on Nazi concentration camps. I would like to suggest you for the role of leader. You would be perfect for that role," suggested Mr. Berlusconi.

Mr. Schulz, who demanded an immediate apology, said the comment shows that Mr. Berlusconi is unfit to represent Europe. But Mr. Berlusconi refused to apologize, telling reporters that he had only made an ironic joke inspired by Mr. Schulz' tone and gestures.

The incident overshadowed Mr. Berlusconi's presentation of Italy's priorities for the European Union. He promised to work to boost Europe's flagging economy, involve the European Union in the search for Middle East peace and rebuild EU ties with the United States in the wake of the Iraq war.

Mr. Berlusconi, who supported the U.S. position on Iraq but did not send troops there until after the fighting was over, said Europe must commit itself to building a strong defense within NATO and work with the United States in facing the political challenges of the new century.

"The fight against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, support for promotion of democracy and the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms represent concrete areas where we can test our ability to build a strong relationship of cooperation between the two sides of the Atlantic," said Mr. Berlusconi.

But despite being roundly applauded by the majority of European legislators, Mr. Berlusconi's speech and his plans for the European Union failed to quiet critics who continue to insist that the flamboyant Italian leader lacks the moral authority to hold the top EU job.

Mr. Berlusconi's answer to that, published in the Times of London, is that no one can give lessons in morality to a government freely elected by the Italian people.