cosa nostra dago goes the hun

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    Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire Italian prime minister, spectacularly confirmed widespread fears of a rocky ride ahead for his European Union presidency yesterday when he suggested that a German MEP should star in a film about a Nazi concentration camp.

    The incident was triggered by Martin Schulz, leader of the German socialists in the 626-member assembly, who had attacked Mr Berlusconi's use of an immunity law to sidestep bribery charges.

    "Mr Schulz, I know there is a producer in Italy who is making a film on Nazi concentration camps," the prime minister retorted. "I will suggest you for the role of commandant. You'd be perfect."

    Pandemonium broke out in the European parliament when Mr Berlusconi made his extraordinary jibe.

    The controversial Forza Italia leader beamed broadly as outraged Euro MPs protested, insisting he had simply made an "ironic" joke in response to harsh and unjustified criticism. But Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, was not amused, summoning the Italian ambassador to Berlin to hear a formal protest about the "unacceptable" slur.

    "I did not mean to offend the feelings of a country, feelings that have a historical motivation," a chastened Mr Berlusconi later told a meeting of centre-right politicians in Strasbourg.

    The incident overshadowed his formal presentation of plans for Italy's six-month stint in the rotating union presidency, which began on Tuesday.

    Mr Berlusconi tried eventually to get away from what he called "this stupid side issue" and pledged: "Italy will take its commitment very, very seriously." Otherwise the debate had been low key and respectful, with Mr Berlusconi - attacked by newspapers across the continent in recent days - setting out his agenda in a measured way and even signalling humility in the face of the political and economic challenges ahead for Europe.

    Immediately afterwards, though, condemnation came thick and fast, with Gary Titley, leader of Britain's Labour MEPs complaining of Mr Berlusconi's "Jekyll and Hyde nature".

    Later, at a short and tense press conference, the Italian leader said: "My joke wasn't meant to be offensive. It was an ironic joke, though perhaps the translation wasn't done in an ironic sense." He added that the German's "gestures and tone" had upset him.

    Nick Clegg, a British Liberal Democrat, said: "We MEPs are not used to such macho tub-thumping and gesticulation. While this may have been a moment of welcome drama in an otherwise fairly sedate Strasbourg session, it represents the worst possible start to the Italian presidency.

    "Having witnessed Berlusconi's offensive buffoonery, I do not believe he is capable of running the presidency with the tact and neutrality which is essential to the task."
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