The head of Europe’s conservative parties faced an internal revolt Tuesday over comments by former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi criticizing Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Politicians from nine countries criticized the comments and several said they planned to boycott an upcoming gathering of conservatives in Naples, Italy, if Berlusconi attended, two people with direct knowledge of the exchanges told POLITICO.
Berlusconi, an 86-year-old admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin whose Forza Italia party belongs to the wider European People’s Party (EPP) grouping, sparked outrage over the weekend when he told Italian media that Zelenskyy could have avoided Russia’s invasion if only he’d not attacked the “two autonomous republics of the Donbas” in Ukraine. Berlusconi also said that he judged “very, very negatively the behavior of this gentleman.”
The comments infuriated other members of the EPP, whose official line is one of steadfast support for Ukraine against Russian aggression, triggering a crisis inside the EU’s largest political grouping, whose members include Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Parliament President Roberta Metsola.
Anger boiled over during a gathering of national EPP delegations in Strasbourg, with representatives from Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Sweden, Luxembourg and Belgium all standing up to criticize Berlusconi’s comments and urging EPP chief Manfred Weber to speak out publicly against them, the people with direct knowledge said.
“Putin uses not only the eastern front. He uses all the means to activate all the proxies he can on the western front,” Rasa Juknevičienė, a lawmaker from Lithuania, was quoted as having said. “Many delegations will not go to Naples if Berlusconi is there.”
Another lawmaker compared Berlusconi to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, while Andrzej Halicki, who heads the Polish delegation, echoed that line, saying it was “unacceptable” for Berlusconi to remain the head of Forza Italia. Antonio Tajani, also of Forza Italia, is deputy prime minister and foreign minister in the government of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni from the Brothers of Italy party.
The uprising creates a headache for Weber, who is trying to create a rapprochement with Meloni’s government in an attempt to widen the EPP’s base ahead of European Parliament election in 2024. Outrage over Berlusconi brings negative attention to Forza Italia, which is the EPP’s bridge into Meloni’s government.
A representative for Weber had no immediate comment about the revolt. But according to the people with direct knowledge of the exchanges, Weber got up to answer the criticism, saying: “We have a Berlusconi problem, but not a Forza Italia problem. In tomorrow’s plenary debate, I will be totally clear on our line on Ukraine. We also should take note that Meloni’s statements were closer to us than Berlusconi’s.” Meloni’s office had emphasized that Rome supports Ukraine.
Weber did not say whether the Naples meeting would go ahead and if Berlusconi would attend.