LEIPZIG, Germany Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta warned on a visit to Germany on Thursday that stereotyping his compatriots as "lazy" or Germans as "selfish" would boost support for populists in next year's European Parliament vote.
If the two countries are not careful, Letta told the party congress of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), "the campaign for the European election risks being full of reciprocal prejudices - the 'selfish Germans' against the 'lazy, idle Italians'".
"Such an election campaign would only help the populist, anti-European vote to grow," Letta told the SPD in Leipzig, on a podium with the center-left party's leadership including Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who beat the SPD in September's election but must now form a coalition government with it, offended many southern Europeans at the height of the euro zone crisis by saying they worked short hours and took long holidays. She has since praised their economic reform efforts.
Merkel has also been the butt of stereotypes, portrayed by Greek protesters in Nazi uniform or with a Hitler moustache.
Letta said there was a risk the elections in May 2014 would produce "the most anti-European European Parliament in history" - and repeated his call on Germany to support growth-oriented economic policies that would deprive populists of a platform.
The center-left Italian leader this week joined a global debate about whether Germany's strong exports and Merkel's emphasis on austerity risked hurting the world economy.
"If there is growth and stability only in Germany and the rest of Europe is left out, in the end it will be bad for Germany as well," he said on Monday in Malta.
Letta told the SPD its negotiations with Merkel's conservatives about forming a coalition government by Christmas would help shape the EU's response to challenges like youth unemployment and inequality.
He promised Rome would get its public finances in good shape by the time Italy takes over the EU's rotating presidency in the second half of next year - and addressed another stereotype that is current in Germany, that only Berlin has funded economic bailouts for euro zone countries.
"I'd like to tell you everyone takes part in the bailout mechanism and Italy, which has not asked for a single euro of help, has paid in 54 billion euros, France 61 and Germany 81," Letta said.
"It is important that the German public hears this."
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)