Italy's blunder over Obama

8th November 2008, Comments 0 comments

In light of Berlusconi's well known gaffe-prone nature, Italy braces itself for tricky times ahead in its relations with the US.

Rome -- Barely 24 hours had passed since Barack Obama's election win and Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was, it seems, unable to resist making an unfortunate comment that touched on the US president-elect's racial background.

The three-time Italian leader had initially greeted Obama's election triumph in almost avuncular terms.

He would, he said, offer the 47-year-old US president-elect "some advice given my age and experience."

But hours later, during a visit to Moscow, Berlusconi, who once said foreign businessmen should invest in his country because Italian secretaries had "great legs," revealed his more ebullient, or as critics would say, gaffe-prone nature.

Berlusconi told Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that Obama "has all the qualities to get along well with you."

When asked why Berlusconi responded that Obama is "young, handsome and suntanned."

Italian opposition politicians and many commentators were aghast.

Berlusconi's remarks "seriously damage the image and dignity of our country on the international scene," centre-left Democratic Party leader Walter Veltroni said.

Such "cabaret one liners" showed a "lack of respect" unworthy of a statesman, he said.

Veltroni's deputy, Dario Franceschini, urged Berlusconi to apologize for words that "to the ears of the world sound like an offence loaded with dangerous ambiguities."

In response Berlusconi said, "I didn't imagine they could be such imbeciles." He then defended his remarks, describing them as "absolutely cute."

Reporters who witnessed Berlusconi's performance in Moscow, mostly agreed the "suntanned" remark appeared to be uttered in jest. After all, the Italian leaders's permanently bronzed features, suggest an admiration for the sun's aesthetic effects on the skin.

If anything, the most sour comment emerging from Italy following Obama's historic victory came from a Senate whip of the right wing National Alliance, Maurizio Gasparri, who suggested that al Qaeda would be "happier with Obama in the White House."

Still, given his track record of politically inappropriate remarks and the response they have provoked, Berlusconi should have known better, Italian newspaper commentators agreed.

The billionaire media baron-turned-politician caused outrage in 2003 when he told Martin Schulz of Germany, head of the European Parliament's Socialists that he would propose him for a film role as kapo, a Nazi concentration camp guard.

And in 2005, a brief diplomatic crisis ensued between Italy and Finland after Berlusconi suggested he had used his "playboy tactics" to persuade the Finnish President Tarja Halonen to lend her support for Italy as the site of the European Food Safety Authority.

"It's high-time the leader renews his repertoire of one-liners," said Stefano Folli, editor of the financial daily, Il Sole 24 Ore. "There was nothing racist in what Berlusconi said, yet as a quip, it was very unfortunate."

But writing in Corriere della Sera, Gian Antonio Stella, said Berlusconi's Obama gaffe was particularly serious when seen in the light of unsavoury remarks by some of his political allies.

Two cabinet ministers from the anti-immigration Northern League, Umberto Bossi and Roberto Calderoli have both used a derogatory term for black people, "bingo bongo," referring to immigrants, Sella said.

Also, the Berlusconi government's recent crackdown on squatter camps occupied by ethnic Roma, and attempts to introduce tougher penalties for illegal immigrants who commit crimes, have prompted charges of racism in the European Parliament.

Italy can ill afford further damage to its image, courtesy of Berlusconi's supposedly "breezy" comments, said Folli.


DPA/Peter Mayer/Expatica

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