Berlusconi expresses 'regret'
Schroeder: Phone call ends Nazi jibe row
BERLIN, Germany -- Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has expressed "regret" to his German counterpart for comparing a German lawmaker to a Nazi concentration camp guard, and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said the diplomatic crisis was over.
Schroeder spoke to reporters Thursday after a phone call between the two leaders and said Berlusconi "expressed regret for the choice of this expression and comparison. I explained to him that as far as I am concerned this ends the affair."
The German leader said any further action over Berlusconi's controversial remark was the responsibility of the European Parliament, adding that he hoped Italy's six-month presidency of the European Union would be a success.
Berlusconi's comments appeared to fall short of the full apology Schroeder had demanded earlier Thursday, when the chancellor told the German parliament Berlusconi's comments Wednesday at the European Parliament were "inappropriate and completely unacceptable."
"I expect that the Italian prime minister will apologize fully for this unacceptable comparison," Schroeder said to applause.
Berlusconi's office issued a brief statement Thursday evening following the phone call between the two leaders.
"During a telephone conversation with the German chancellor, the prime minister told him about the serious affront that he faced in the European Parliament yesterday," the statement said.
"The Italian prime minister also repeated what he had already said yesterday, that is to say his regret for the fact that someone could have misunderstood the meaning of a joke that was only meant to be ironic.
"Both parties have agreed that in the interests of Europe, the Intergovernmental Conference on the European Constitution should be successfully concluded during the Italian presidency."
Berlusconi has been widely condemned in European media for his remark, which overshadowed the start of Italy's EU presidency this week.
European Parliament leaders held an emergency meeting Thursday on the row but failed to agree on whether to demand that Berlusconi make amends.
Instead, Parliament President Pat Cox said he would contact the Italians to see if they had "the wisdom and capacity to put this behind us."
Berlusconi's outburst came in reaction to criticism by German Social Democratic MEP Martin Schulz of Berlusconi's legal problems and an alleged conflict of interest between his political role and his extensive media empire.
Berlusconi told Schulz: "I know in Italy there is a producer, producing a film on Nazi concentration camps. I will suggest you for the role of kapo (commander). You would be perfect for that role."
European MPs on all political sides condemned the attack, warning it went beyond a personal insult and had plunged the European Union into crisis.
The diplomatic fallout reached Berlin, where the Italian ambassador was called by Schroeder for an explanation.
Opposition Italian MPs have demanded that Berlusconi resign, and even some of his political allies expressed dismay at his outburst.
Berlusconi accused Italy's left-wing opposition of being behind the row.
The uproar was front-page news Thursday in Italy and Germany, where commentators across the political spectrum condemned Berlusconi and questioned his fitness to speak for Europe. (Full story)
Schulz told Italy's La Stampa newspaper that he rejected Berlusconi's explanation that he was being ironic.
"Suffice it to say that Berlusconi would do best to resign," Schulz was quoted as saying.
Berlusconi said on Wednesday he did not mean to offend German feelings, but he declined to retract the comment or apologize to Schulz.
After leaving the European Parliament chamber Wednesday, Berlusconi shrugged the row off as a "stupid side issue," declaring: "If people are not able to understand irony, I am very sorry, that's too bad, but I am not withdrawing what I said with irony."