ITALIAN president Giorgio Napolitano has cancelled a dinner with the German opposition’s chancellor candidate in Berlin after he described Italy’s former premier Silvio Berlusconi and comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo as “clowns”.
Peer Steinbrueck, a Social Democrat who will take on chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany’s next national election in September, has a reputation for gaffes and his remark created the first diplomatic incident of his accident-prone campaign.
Mr Steinbrueck said on Tuesday night he was “appalled that two clowns have won” Italy’s 24-25 February election. The vote was actually inconclusive with no party achieving a majority in parliament, although Grillo’s anti-establishment party surged dramatically.
Mr Napolitano, an 87-year-old former communist with no natural affinity for Mr Berlusconi or Mr Grillo, made clear that as head of state he would brook no insults to national pride.
“We respect, and naturally we demand respect, for our country,” he said in an emotional speech to members of the Italian community in Munich, the first stage of a state visit that includes talks with Mrs Merkel in Berlin today.
“Our country has serious problems in its structure and daily life… It has darkness but many lights, and you can be proud,” he told his compatriots, stifling a sob.
Italian media said Mr Napolitano, who now faces the difficult task of trying to appoint a coalition government, had expressed concern about “populism” after the election during a private meeting in Germany. These reports could not be confirmed.
Mr Steinbrueck’s spokesman said Mr Napolitano cancelled dinner because of the German’s “remarks on Tuesday”. Mr Steinbrueck had called the president yesterday to “clarify” his comments, he said and the men had a “friendly” conversation.