The leader of the European People’s Party (EPP) Manfred Weber has distanced himself from Silvio Berlusconi following the latter’s statements against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The center-right Forza Italia party has strongly defended the former Italian prime minister, going so far as to question Mr. Weber’s leadership.
Mr. Berlusconi’s remarks against Mr. Zelensky have caused trouble within the centre-right political group in the European Parliament. Following criticism from several MEPs, Mr. Weber finally decided to officially distance himself from Mr. Berlusconi, stating that “ support for Ukraine is not optional ”.
Mr Weber also decided to cancel a planned EPP rally in Naples in June, after some EPP members threatened not to attend if Mr Berlusconi was present.
In a bid to limit the problem to Mr Berlusconi and not the party as a whole, the German politician said on Twitter that “Antonio Tajani [Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs] and Forza Italia have our support”. and that the EPP continues its “cooperation with the Italian government on European issues”.
For his part, Mr. Tajani, who is also the national coordinator of Forza Italia, reacted strongly to these announcements and came to the defense of Mr. Berlusconi.
“[Silvio] Berlusconi is Forza Italia. Forza Italia is Berlusconi,” he said on social media.
“I do not share the decision to postpone the meeting in Naples. Notably because [Silvio] Berlusconi and Forza Italia have always voted in the same direction as the EPP on Ukraine,” he added.
Mr Tajani was in Rome alongside the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola (EPP), for the inauguration of a new multimedia space dedicated to the former President of the European Parliament David Sassoli. Both underlined the commitment of the EPP and the European institutions to support Ukraine.
“Europe wants to bring peace, the rule of law. We defend freedom and international law, and for that, we defend Ukraine, it is a candidate country [for EU membership], and we want peace to reign there too,” explained Ms. Tajani.
The Minister clarified that aid to Ukraine is necessary to reach a negotiation: “We must all commit ourselves so that an agreement can be found”.
Moreover, the Forza Italia group leaders in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, Alessandro Cattaneo and Licia Ronzulli, saw in these remarks a “clumsy attempt to divide us”.
“We hope, above all as Italians, for a clarification of the misunderstanding and a repentance from Manfred Weber, whom we ask not to intervene anymore,” they said.
“He harms not only a party but also Italy by his willingness to interfere in the internal life of a party, imposing or excluding its leaders. This is unacceptable,” they continued.
Ms. Ronzulli, a senator and former MEP, even questioned Mr. Weber’s leadership.
“Mr. Weber is unfit to lead the EPP,” she said on Twitter.
Ahead of the Italian elections, the EPP leader backed a coalition government between Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) party, Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega party.
In particular, he called on Italians to vote for Forza Italia in order to “ guarantee ” the pro-EU positioning of such a coalition.
Mr Weber also recently tried to bring Ms Meloni’s party closer to working with the EPP, but faced strong opposition within the political group in the European Parliament.
“A clear majority opposes such collaboration,” a senior EPP leader recently told EURACTIV.
The idea also appears to have angered center-right parties as far away as Berlin, with the latter claiming the option is hardly an option.
This article is originally published on euractiv.fr