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Italian PM Expresses Regret for Inflammatory Comment - 2003-07-08

The head of the European Parliament said Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has expressed regret to the assembly for comparing one of its German members to a Nazi concentration camp guard. The Italian government also tried to distance itself from the comments of a junior minister who insulted Germans.

A statement issued by European Parliament president Pat Cox said Mr. Berlusconi regrets having made remarks and comparisons that hurt the sensitivities of the assembly's members.

In his debut before the Parliament as chairman of the European Union last week, the Italian prime minister faced heckling from German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, who accused Mr. Berlusconi of using an immunity law to sidestep bribery charges and called attention to a conflict of interest between his role as prime minister and his ownership of most of Italy's private television stations.

Mr. Berlusconi reacted by telling Mr. Schulz he would be perfect in the role of a Nazi concentration camp guard in an Italian film.

The remark caused outrage across Europe and with a number of observers calling into question whether the flamboyant Italian leader is fit to represent Europe during the next six months.

Mr. Cox said Mr. Berlusconi assured him in a telephone conversation that his intentions may have been misunderstood and that he had had no intention of offending anyone.

Mr. Berlusconi's remark also provoked a diplomatic spat with Germany, always sensitive about its Nazi past. Last Thursday, the Italian leader expressed his regret to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Though Germany and Italy seemed determined to put the incident behind them, the Italo-German spat worsened when Italy's undersecretary for industry, Stefano Stefani, wrote a letter to a right-wing newspaper on Friday. He described Germans as hyper-nationalistic blondes with a superiority complex who arrogantly invade Italian beaches every summer.

Mr. Schroeder immediately threatened to cancel a scheduled vacation in Italy, and Germany's mass-circulation newspaper, Bild, remarked that Mr. Stefani has spaghetti for brains.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini rapidly tried to make amends by calling Mr. Stefani a lone voice and describing what he wrote as unnecessary and out of line. Mr. Frattini said he hopes the unfortunate comment does not disrupt the traditional friendship between Germany and Italy and assured German tourists they are always welcome in his country.

Mr. Schroeder's spokesman now said his boss assumes that Mr. Frattini spoke on behalf of the Italian government and is therefore considering going ahead with his Italian vacation.