“You don't have to agree with his methods… but let's be honest, Mussolini built roads, bridges, buildings, sports installations, he remade many parts of our Italy,” said Tajani, who is close to tycoon and former premier Silvio Berlusconi.
“Generally speaking I don't think his government action was positive. But things were done,” he told Italian radio on Wednesday, mentioning also “very serious, unacceptable mistakes”, including eliminating opponents, race laws and declaring war.
Faced with a barrage of criticism, Tajani took to Twitter to defend himself.
Si vergogni chi strumentalizza le mie parole sul fascismo! Sono da sempre un antifascista convinto. Non permetto a nessuno di insinuare il contrario. La dittatura fascista, le sue leggi razziali, i morti che ha causato sono la pagina più buia della storia italiana ed europea.
— Antonio Tajani (@EP_President) March 13, 2019
“Shame on those who manipulate what I've allegedly said on fascism. I've always been a convinced anti-fascist, I will not allow anyone to suggest otherwise,” he wrote. “The fascist dictatorship, racial laws and deaths it caused are the darkest page in Italian and European history.”
Yet amid calls for his resignation from MEPs, Tajani later offered an apology for his comments. “I apologize to all those who may have been offended by what I said. My remarks were in no way intended to justify or minimize an anti-democratic and totalitarian regime,” he said in a statement in English.
“I am deeply saddened that, despite my personal and political history, some may feel that I would choose to be lenient with regards to fascism,” he added.
On Thursday, #Tajani was trending in Italy, with one user tweeting a photo of a glass of brackish water: “There's also clean water in this glass.”
Left-wing MEPs in Brussels recalled the alliance of Tajani's Forza Italia with rightwing parties the League and Brothers of Italy.
MAI PIÙ FASCISMO!!!!
GUE/NGL calls on @EP_President to resign over his pro-fascist sympathy in an interview yesterday. By normalising & justifying fascism, Tajani's resorted to the language that fascists have been using since the end of the war. Unacceptable!! #TajaniDimettiti pic.twitter.com/4QEb6PTsaT
— The Left in the European Parliament (@GUENGL) March 14, 2019
“The statements by the president of the European parliament are unworthy and absolutely unacceptable,” the head of the Greens-European Free Alliance grouping, Ska Keller, said in a statement.
“Antonio Tajani must withdraw his comments normalizing fascism or resign,” said the German MEP.
Italy's relationship with its fascist past is complicated, to say the least. Unlike in Germany, where the country's wartime leaders are overwhelmingly reviled and Nazi symbols a taboo, Mussolini's birthplace continues to attract admiring pilgrims, Il Duce trinkets are a common sight in souvenir shops and several mainstream Italian politicians have been known to publicly express admiration for the dictator.
READ ALSO: The Italians who worship Mussolini
Mussolini souvenirs for sale in Italy. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
Silvio Berlusconi, head of Forza Italia and four-time prime minister, once remarked while in office that “Mussolini never killed anyone”, despite his collaboration with the Nazis to send Italian Jews to their deaths and his troops' brutal occupation of Ethiopia.
More recently Matteo Salvini, leader of the League and Italy's interior minister, has said that “a lot of things got done” under Italy's Fascist government, hailing Mussolini's infrastructure projects and pension system while dismissing his race laws as “madness”.
Salvini, who is also Italy's deputy prime minister, is prone to invoking the dictator's words on social media: last July, on the anniversary of Mussolini's birth, he posted the phrase “So many enemies, so much honour” in an echo of a well-known Fascist slogan.
READ ALSO: Is Italy's League a ‘far-right' party?
Photo: Paco Serinelli/AFP