Europe is being taken over by populist leaders who resemble “little Mussolinis”, a senior EU figure said on Thursday, prompting fury from Italy.
Pierre Moscovici, European Economic Affairs Commissioner from France, likened the current political climate to the rise of Fascism and Nazism and said he was concerned about the rise of populist parties in the lead-up to European Parliament elections next year.
“There’s a climate very similar to that of the 1930s,” he told a press conference in Paris.
“Certainly we should not exaggerate, clearly there’s not Hitler, maybe little Mussolinis (instead).”
Italy’s coalition government reacted with anger to the remarks, with Luigi Di Maio, deputy prime minister, calling them totally unacceptable.
"The attitude from some European commissioners is unacceptable, really intolerable. “They dare to say that in Italy there are many little Mussolinis, and that should not be permitted,” Mr Di Maio, the head of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, said.
“This shows how these people are totally divorced from reality. Our government has the strongest popular support of any in Europe yet this is how we are treated by European commissioners, who within six to eight months will probably no longer have jobs.
“At the next European elections, citizens are going to kick out a good part of the establishment.”
Gabriele Lanzi, a Five Star senator, said Mr Moscovici’s comments were “shameful”.
The coalition government, an uneasy alliance between Five Star and the hard Right, anti-immigration League party, has a fractious relationship with the EU.
Both parties have flirted with the idea of abandoning the euro as Italy’s currency and last month they blamed years of austerity and cost-cutting imposed by Brussels for the collapse of the Morandi motorway bridge in Genoa, which claimed the lives of 43 people.
It was a charge that was strongly rebutted by EU officials.
They have also been highly critical of the EU’s failure to help Italy deal with the migration crisis, with Matteo Salvini, the leader of The League, forcing a showdown with Brussels by refusing to let NGO rescue vessels dock in Italian ports.
The coalition has threatened to withhold its contributions to Brussels unless other EU countries agree to accept migrants rescued in the Mediterranean.
The remarks by Mr Moscovici are likely to plunge relations to a new low.
He spoke at a European Commission event at which he called for Italy to present a “credible” budget.
The coalition has promised tax cuts, pension reforms and a guaranteed minimum income that economists estimate will cost Italy up to €28 billion – money it can ill afford.
“You can’t live with a public debt that is over 130 per cent (of GDP),” the commissioner said. “It’s in Italy’s interest to reduce its very high public debt.”