BRUSSELS — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose country now leads the European Union, provoked an uproar at the European Parliament yesterday by telling a German lawmaker he should star as a Nazi concentration camp guard in a movie.
Mr. Berlusconi’s remark appeared to confirm some critics’ fears that he is not fit to be the international face of Europe. Italy’s richest man has been dogged by legal problems and accused of having conflicts of interest arising from his vast media holdings.
During a question-and-answer session following his speech, German socialist lawmaker Martin Schulz referred to Mr. Berlusconi’s use of an Italian immunity law to sidestep bribery charges in a Milan court.
“In Italy, they are making a movie on Nazi concentration camps,” Mr. Berlusconi snapped back. “I will propose you for the role of capo,” or chief.
That prompted a rebuke from the president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, who suspended the session after Mr. Berlusconi refused to withdraw his comment, saying it was meant as an “ironic joke.”
Mr. Schulz said the remark showed Mr. Berlusconi was unfit to represent Europe.
Mr. Berlusconi’s words “debase the presidency of the [EU] council and offend Europe,” said Graham Watson, leader of the Liberal Democrat group in the European Parliament.
Mr. Schulz and Mr. Cox demanded an apology, but Mr. Berlusconi did not offer one.
Mr. Cox then closed the parliamentary debate, saying, “I regret the offense caused to a respected member, my colleague Mr. Schulz. It would be appropriate to correct the record in this regard. The debate is now closed.”
During a news conference, Mr. Berlusconi again refused to apologize, insisting his Nazi comment was meant as a joke inspired by the German legislator’s “tone and gestures.”
“My joke wasn’t meant to be offensive,” Mr. Berlusconi said. “It was an ironic joke; perhaps the translation wasn’t done in an ironic sense.”
Mr. Berlusconi appeared before the parliament in Strasbourg, France, to outline his government’s plans for the EU’s six-month rotating presidency. He will play a high-profile role in European and international politics, chairing major EU meetings.
However, attention quickly focused on Mr. Berlusconi’s wheeler-dealer image and charges by critics he is unfit to represent Europe.
On Monday, a Milan court suspended Mr. Berlusconi’s trial for purportedly bribing Italian judges in the 1980s to sway a ruling in the sale of state-held food conglomerate SME. The billionaire media mogul has denied the charges.
The trial was halted after the Italian parliament last month adopted legislation granting legal immunity to top officials.
As Mr. Berlusconi rose to address the 626-member European Parliament, seven Green party members held up placards saying “Everybody is equal under the law.”
Mr. Berlusconi responded: “If this is your idea of democracy, you ought to visit Italy as tourists. You are behaving as tourists.”
Mr. Berlusconi also pledged that his government would complete negotiations on the first constitution for an expanded EU and would combat illegal immigration. The bloc grows from 15 to 25 members next year.
“The Italian presidency will do all in its power … to take responsible decisions on our future,” Mr. Berlusconi said. “There is a great deal of moral and intellectual responsibility on our shoulders.”