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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 July, 2003, 17:06 GMT 18:06 UK
Bad start for Berlusconi

By Chris Morris
BBC correspondent in Brussels

It all seemed to be going better than expected.

The Italian prime minister was setting out his stall for the next six months, promising firm leadership of the European Union.

Then Silvio Berlusconi pressed the controversy button and jaws dropped throughout the European parliament.

Silvio Berlusconi answers questions at a press conference
Berlusconi has refused to apologise for the "ironic joke"

His "ironic joke" - comparing a German Member of the European Parliament (MEP) to a guard in a Nazi concentration camp - could not have got the Italian presidency of the EU off to a worse start.

Instead of a focus on policy, all the talk will be about personality of the man at centre stage.

Mr Berlusconi's comments, and his refusal to apologise, will confirm all the doubts his many critics have raised.

Is this a man fit to speak for Europe?

'Offensive buffoonery'

Italian officials will try to dismiss the incident as a storm in a teacup, but it will not be forgotten.

"Offensive buffoonery", said one MEP.

His words "debase the presidency and offend Europe", said another.

Mr Berlusconi makes many Europeans uneasy.

The battle lines are drawn and it could prove to be a long and unpredictable six months

They do not like the way he interferes in the media, or in the judicial process.

And they do not believe he is the right man to lead Europe by consensus.

He has a well-known and long-standing antipathy towards the president of the European Commission, his fellow Italian and political rival Romano Prodi.

And he has often upset fellow European leaders by showing little respect for common EU positions.

Strong character sought?

But, say his supporters, that is because he is not a conventional politician.

He does things differently - just what Europe needs as it tries to reform its economy and its social welfare systems.

He has good relations with the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and with US President George W Bush.

Green Party members show placards reading everyone is equal before the law before Berlusconi reads his speech
Green MEPs had also protested before Berlusconi's speech

And if the EU is looking for a strong character at the helm it certainly has one now.

So the battle lines are drawn, and it could prove to be a long and unpredictable six months.

Italy has a very full agenda for its presidency - including the launch of the Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) which will complete the drafting of the EU's first constitution.

But the personality of Italy's controversial prime minister will continue to attract close scrutiny.

His critics fear he could bring Europe into disrepute.

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