Berlusconi, on mobile, misses NATO group photo

5th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Arriving on the German side of the river, Berlusconi got out of his limousine with his cellphone to his ear and turned his back on Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel instead of walking to greet her.

Kehl -- Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi made a fresh faux pas on Saturday, talking on his mobile instead of posing for a group photo with NATO's other 27 leaders on a bridge spanning the Rhine.

Arriving on the German side of the river, Berlusconi got out of his limousine with his cellphone to his ear and turned his back on Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel instead of walking to greet her.

Left standing alone on the red carpet, Merkel smiled weakly at the Italian and proceeded to greet half a dozen other leaders including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown as they arrived in their motorcades.

Once the leaders had all arrived seven or eight minutes later, Merkel gave up on Berlusconi and went to join the other leaders waiting for the photo, looking round at one point to see if the Italian was arriving -- but in vain.

His phone call continued, and when a brass band struck up, Berlusconi put his finger in his ear and walked further down the river bank to escape the noise.

The leaders, including US President Barack Obama, then crossed the bridge to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy who crossed from the French side before meeting midway and posing for a photo -- without the Italian leader.

Meeting on the bridge between old foes France and Germany was of symbolic significance as NATO leaders began the final day of a summit marking the military alliance's 60th anniversary.

According to Italy's ANSA news agency, the Italian leader had Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the other end of the line, and the two men were discussing key NATO business: the identity of the next secretary general.

Berlusconi -- Italy's richest man, a business magnate and owner of football club AC Milan -- also faced mass protests at home on Saturday over his government's handling of the economic crisis.

The incident comes hard on the heels of his antics at the Group of 20 summit on Thursday in London, when he played the clown in a group photo that made front pages worldwide.

The evening before after a gala dinner in London, Berlusconi called out loudly for Obama after a group photo, causing Queen Elizabeth II to wonder out loud, "why does he have to shout?"

Rasmussen was also involved in another notorious incident, when Berlusconi described him as "the most handsome prime minister in Europe" and quipped that he might "introduce him to my wife."

Merkel has also found herself on the receiving end of his disdain for diplomatic niceties when he playfully hid and jumped out to surprise the chancellor in Trieste, northern Italy.

And it is not just harmless gaffes occasionally brightening up otherwise earnest summits. The 72-year-old media tycoon's missteps have invited accusations of sexism, racism and insensitivity to the disadvantaged.

Shortly after Obama's election in November, Berlusconi insists he was making an "affectionate" remark when he described the first black US president as "young, handsome and even tanned".

Perhaps his most egregious gaffe was at the European Parliament in 2003, when he told a heckling German MEP that he would be good for a part as a Nazi concentration camp guard.

Italian pollster Nando Pagnoncelli says that what are perceived as gaffes often have populist appeal back home, especially among Berlusconi's right-wing constituents.

His antics "raise eyebrows in the public opinion of the left, (but) they are endearing to the right," Pagnoncelli told the left-leaning La Repubblica.

Underscoring the point, the paper ran a cartoon Friday in which one figure says "Berlusconi's ability to make himself ridiculous can't be matched," and the other replies: "Here in Italy we call it charisma."

AFP/Expatica

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