EPP cancels meeting in Italy after Berlusconi’s Zelenskyy remarks

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European People’s Party chief Manfred Weber axed plans to hold a meeting of all his MEPs in Italy this summer, after controversial comments by former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi about Ukraine.

Berlusconi provoked outrage last weekend for laying the blame for Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine on Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Berlusconi leads Forza Italia, part of the center-right EPP family, and a junior partner in Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing coalition government.

EPP MEPs from nine countries reacted furiously at a closed-door meeting in Strasbourg Tuesday, with some threatening to boycott the meeting in Naples if Berlusconi attended, prompting the EPP to publicly distance itself from Berlusconi’s remarks. The controversy has created a political headache for EPP chief Weber who has been attempting to align himself with Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party ahead of the EU election next year.

On Friday, Weber called a meeting of the groups’ top lawmakers and then tweeted: “Following the remarks by Silvio Berlusconi on Ukraine we decided to cancel our study days in Naples. Support for Ukraine is not optional.”

Berlusconi was also rebuked after his comments by former European Parliament President and now Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who said their Forza Italia party “has always been on the side of the independence of Ukraine.”

A spokesperson for Weber said the plan for the Naples meeting had been for all 176 EPP lawmakers and staff to discuss the conservative group’s strategy ahead of the EU election in 2024, and discuss what policies are still to be prioritized before then. An alternative destination for the meeting, slated for June 7-9, has not yet been chosen.