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Silvio Berlusconi’s 9 most controversial moments

Paul Dallison writes Declassified, a weekly satirical column.

“In 20 years of politics, I have never insulted anyone.”

Those were the somewhat surprising words of Silvio Berlusconi in 2014 when asked by the BBC why he kept insulting people.

Berlusconi was, to put it very, very mildly, a controversial figure. The former Italian prime minister, who has died aged 86, often seemed to embrace the fact that he caused offense, berating his critics for not being able to take a joke.

Here are some of Berlusconi’s more famous controversies (and there are plenty more):

Winding up the whole of Finland

Which cuisine do you prefer, Italian or Finnish?

In the early 2000s, negotiations were held to decide on the location of the European Food Safety Authority, with Parma and Helsinki the competitors. Berlusconi was unknowingly overheard saying that Finnish food was inedible and disgusting and that he could barely endure it during his visits to the North. “Finns only eat marinated reindeer meat! They don’t even know what prosciutto is,” Berlusconi said. The EU agency did end up in Parma.

A few years later, Berlusconi was in trouble again after saying that he had to use his “playboy” charms on then-Finnish President Tarja Halonen. 

The Finns got some measure of revenge when Finnish chain Kotipizza brought out a pizza topped with reindeer (but of course), chanterelles and red onions. They named the creation Berlusconi and it went on to win a prestigious pizza competition in New York.

Promising footballers a ‘bus full of whores’

After years of owning Italian football giant AC Milan, Berlusconi later purchased another club, Monza, and gave the players a pep talk at their Christmas party last year. He had an incentive for them.

“We have found a new coach,” Berlusconi said to the players, referring to Raffaele Palladino. “He is good, charming, kind and capable of incentivizing our lads, but I am adding an extra stimulus: As I told the lads earlier, if you beat any of the top teams, I’ll get a bus full of whores to come to your locker room.”

Responding to criticism, Berlusconi said in a Twitter post that he could not have imagined a “simple locker room joke” could “arouse such malicious and unrealistic comments.”

“Perhaps it’s their utter lack of humor that makes them so sad and yet so gratuitously mean to attack those they consider enemies. But it’s Christmas. So Merry Christmas to them as well,” he added.

Pranking Merkel

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel was not, you won’t be surprised to hear, a big fan of Berlusconi and his antics. Berlusconi once played a practical joke — and the word joke is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence — on Merkel, jumping out from behind a monument and shouting “cuckoo” at her during a summit in Trieste to discuss the economic crisis.

In a BBC interview, Berlusconi was asked if he had once — as was reported by a number of media outlets — called Merkel an “unfuckable fat ass,” and replied that he “never had any problems with Angela Merkel … this has been made up by someone who wanted to turn Angela against me.”

Bunga Bunga

Perhaps Berlusconi’s most famous controversy — and one of the more unusual phrases to enter the lexicon. The sex parties held at his Arcore villa near Milan came to light in 2010 when the ex-PM himself telephoned police seeking the release of a 17-year-old Moroccan, Karima El Mahroug, who had been arrested in Milan on suspicion of stealing jewelry. However, Berlusconi wrongly told police that she was a relative of Egypt’s then-President Hosni Mubarak and her arrest risked a diplomatic incident.

She wasn’t. She was a belly dancer and suspected sex worker who went under the name of Ruby Rubacuori (Ruby, the Heart Stealer) and she claimed to have received $10,000 from Berlusconi at the “bunga bunga” parties he held. Berlusconi was initially found guilty of paying Mahroug for sexual services while she was under the age of 18, but the verdict was overturned on appeal.

Court cases related to the scandal were still going on this year, with Berlusconi in February acquitted after being accused of bribing 24 witnesses to provide false testimony in an earlier trial.

Mates with Putin

One of the first international leaders to pay tribute after Berlusconi’s death was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who called the Italian statesman “a true friend.”

Putin said in a statement: “For me, Silvio was a dear person, a true friend. I have always sincerely admired his wisdom, his ability to make balanced, far-sighted decisions even in the most difficult situations. During each of our meetings, I was literally charged with his incredible vitality, optimism and sense of humor. His death is an irreparable loss and great sorrow.”

Berlusconi and Putin were longtime allies, and the former Italian PM stoked controversy when he blamed Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for Russia’s war.

During Italy’s election campaign last year, Berlusconi said he had “reconnected” with Putin and described himself as one of the Russian president’s “five real friends,” according to an audio recording published in Italian media.

Praising Mussolini

In a 2003 interview with the Spectator, Berlusconi defended the actions of his country’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.

“Mussolini never killed anyone,” the magazine quoted Berlusconi as saying. In the same interview, Berlusconi said that Italy’s judges were “mentally disturbed” and “anthropologically different” from other people.

EU Parliament clash

Former European Parliament President Martin Schulz and Berlusconi had a memorable clash in 2003.

Objecting to the German MEP’s tone, Berlusconi said: “I know of a film producer in Italy who is making a film about Nazi concentration camps. I will recommend you for the part of a Kapo [a prisoner put in charge of other inmates]. You are perfect!”

A furious Schulz replied: “My respect for the victims of fascism forbids me to even say one word to that … it is difficult to accept that a president of the Council in office, confronted with the smallest objection in a debate, loses his manners this way,” to applause from lawmakers.

Earthquake insensitivity

In 2009, a devastating earthquake hit the town of L’Aquila in central Italy. The earthquake claimed the lives of around 300 people and left tens of thousands of others homeless. Visiting the area, Berlusconi told survivors living in emergency tents that they should “look at it as a weekend of camping.”

Annoying the queen

The late Queen Elizabeth II once reportedly gave Berlusconi a ticking-off at the 2009 G20 Summit. During the taking of the family photo, Berlusconi was said to have shouted “Mr. Obama” at the U.S. president. In what would turn out to be good practice for her later interactions with Donald Trump, the queen was said to have turned around, thrown her hands in the air, and said: “What is it? Why does he have to shout?”

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