ROME Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi denied on Monday that he was anti-German, after he caused outrage at the weekend by suggesting Germany did not acknowledge the existence of Nazi concentration camps.
The politician said his leftwing opponents had taken out of context a comment he had made about Martin Schulz, a German who is president of the European Parliament and the center left's candidate to be the next European Commission chief.
"It's surreal to attribute to me any anti-German sentiment or a presumed hostility towards the German people, with whom I am friends," Berlusconi said in a statement.
At a campaign rally on Saturday, Berlusconi described Schulz, whom he once compared to a concentration camp overseer, as unfriendly to Italy. He then added: "According to the Germans, there never were concentration camps.
The latest in a long line of off-color quips from the 77-year-old billionaire has fed into the European parliamentary election campaign in which Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia party has adopted a marked anti-German tone.
Trailing both Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's center-left Democratic Party and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement in the polls ahead of the next month's election, the party has blamed German Chancellor Angela Merkel for forcing Italy to adopt harsh austerity measures.
One of its campaign slogan says: "More Italy, less Germany".
"If I'm hostile to anything, it's to counter-productive austerity, to certain restrictions and rules which, in my opinion, are seriously mistaken and which are trapping the whole of Europe in a long economic stagnation," Berlusconi's statement said.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate for European Commission chief put forward by the European People's Party, the center-right group that includes Forza Italia, called on Berlusconi to withdraw his remarks about concentration camps, saying he was "disgusted" by them.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)