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Europe Tiff: What's next? Food fight?
( 2003-07-10 13:50) (New York Times)

No sooner did Italy and Germany extricate themselves from the diplomatic imbroglio of last week than they got into another one today, with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder reacting to an Italian official's insulting remarks about German tourists by imposing an unusual sanction: he canceled his vacation in Italy.

Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi tastes a 'Granita' Italian ice dessert during a quick visit in Positano, on the Amalfi coast, southern Italy, Wednesday July 9, 2003. Berlusconi said Wednesday July 9, 2003 he was 'sorry'' for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder after the German leader cancelled his Italian vacation to protest comments by an Italian official that Germans were 'hyper-nationalist'' arrogant blondes. [AP ]

Mr. Schroeder  seemed to be bowing to German public opinion, aroused this time by some inexplicably tactless comments by an Italian under secretary responsible for tourism, Stefano Stefani, who characterized the eight million German tourists who visit each year as beer-swilling, chauvinistic boors who, come summer, "invaded the beaches of Italy."

This latest fracas began on Friday when Mr. Stefani, who is a member of the small nationalist Northern League, wrote in a letter to his party's newspaper, La Padania, "We know the Germans well, those stereotyped blonds with a hyper-nationalist pride who have always been indoctrinated to be first in the class at any cost."

Apparently angry over the argument last week over comments by Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, that likened a German deputy in the European Parliament to a functionary in a Nazi concentration camp, Mr. Stefani called Germany a "country intoxicated with arrogant certainties." While they like to vacation in Italy, he said, the Germans also like to deal in anti-Italian stereotypes.

The newspaper Bild, Mr. Stefani continued, referring to Bild Zeitung, Germany's largest mass-circulation tabloid, "doesn't forget to lie about the number of car thefts in Rimini, or even the last statistics from Mafia killings in Sicily."

In more normal times and between countries like Italy and Germany that generally do not look for trouble, the remarks probably would not have become an urgent matter worthy of the attention of the most senior German officials, but as the new squabble indicates, these are not normal times for Italy and Germany.

The two nations were on opposite sides in the debates over war against Iraq, with Mr. Schroeder  a leading European opponent of American policy and Mr. Berlusconi in favor of it. Then came Mr. Berlusconi's remarks last week, which did not go over well in Europe in general but went over extremely badly in Germany.

Today, Mr. Stefani refused to take back anything he had said, and Mr. Berlusconi, who did not follow the advice of at least two German cabinet ministers to fire Mr. Stefani, also showed no particular regret over the latest incident. Asked by Italian reporters for his reaction to Mr. Schroeder 's cancellation, Mr. Berlusconi replied, "I'm sorry for him."

This latest quarrel seems worse than tactless; the words have become ridiculous. It is the sort of ridiculousness that could now have a serious effect on the ability of the European Union, of which Germany and Italy are both charter members, to move forward with the goal of political integration.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is seen during a reception for American students in Berlin July 9, 2003. Schroeder cancelled his holiday in Italy on Wednesday in the wake of anti-German remarks by an Italian junior minister that have soured relations between the two countries. [Reuters]

Demonstrating that one insult leads to another, Mr. Stefani attacked Der Spiegel, the newsmagazine, for putting an unflattering portrait of Mr. Berlusconi on its cover last week (before the incident in the European Parliament) with the caption, "The Godfather."

The message was "self-evident," Mr. Stefani said. It was that "Berlusconi is a mob boss, and thus Mafia Italy is composed of Mafia electors who have accepted living with the Mafia. The Mafia is synonymous with death and suffering."

Finally, Mr. Stefani had these choice words about Martin Schulz, the German deputy who had criticized Mr. Berlusconi and was then excoriated by him. "This Schulz," Mr. Stefani wrote, "probably grew up taking part in noisy burping contests, after drinking gigantic amounts of beer and gorging himself on fried potatoes."

The truth is that Mr. Stefani was probably giving voice to some widespread feelings in Italy about Germans and German tourists, especially after the exchange of insults in the European Parliament last week. But even if some Germans do drink a lot of beer and do take up a lot of the space on Italian beaches in the summer, his comments were not of the sort that cabinet-level government ministers in civilized Europe are supposed to make.

As word of them spread in Germany, resentment mounted. The headline in Bild this morning read, "Stand firm, Chancellor, Nix Bella Italia," and quick polls showed 80 percent of the German public believing that Mr. Schroeder , who often vacations in Italy, was right to cancel his vacation there this year.

The German interior minister, Otto Schily, who, like other members of Mr. Schroeder 's cabinet, often vacations in Italy, said, referring obviously to Mr. Stefani, "If I were the Italian head of government, that man would no longer be in office."

"Those who kick you in the shins and spit at you must not be surprised that that is not good publicity for their country," Mr. Schily said.

Feasting on the incident, Bild today quoted a second senior member of Mr. Schroeder 's cabinet, Economics Minister Wolfgang Clement, saying of Mr. Stefani, "He should be taken out of circulation."

Mr. Schroeder  himself, who has spent his summer vacation in Italy twice in the last three years, at first declined, through his spokesman, to say whether he would cancel his vacation plans, though the spokesman, Bela Anda, called Mr. Stefani's comments "a blanket insult to all Germans who like to holiday in Italy."

In similar fashion last week after the exchange in the European Parliament, Mr. Schroeder  spoke with Mr. Berlusconi on the phone, saying afterward that Mr. Berlusconi expressed regret for what he had said and that he, Mr. Schroeder , considered the matter to be closed.

But at the end of the afternoon today, Mr. Anda said Mr. Schroeder  would not be vacationing in Italy this year.

"Further speculation" about his vacation plans, as Mr. Anda delicately put it, would "compromise the necessary relaxation and an undisturbed family time," adding, "Therefore the family will spend their vacation at home in Hanover."

One effect of the commotion today could directly affect the Italian economy. German tourists last year accounted for 40 percent of all visitors to Italy and spent about $10 billion, according to The Financial Times.

Reflecting the loss of revenue if Germans stopped going to Italy, Palmiro Ucchielli, president of Pesaro Province on the Adriatic, where Mr. Schroeder  was supposed to take his vacation, demanded financial damages from Mr. Berlusconi because of the chancellor's cancellation.

"The stupidity of the people who are leading the government is so great that they are causing powerful economic damage to our image as a tourist destination," he said.

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