Now, even the clowns themselves are involved. Three days after Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic candidate to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel in elections this autumn, referred to Italian political leaders Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo as "clowns," the head of Germany's most famous circus has expressed his displeasure at being compared to the former Italian prime minister.
"A circus clown is no fool who can be placed on the same level as Berlusconi," Bernhard Paul, director of Circus Roncalli, told the German news agency DPA. "Being a clown is an honorable, very difficult, sensitive and artistic occupation," he said. "How can you compare that with bunga bunga?" he added, in reference to Berlusconi's infamous frolicking with women a fraction of his age.
Paul's comments on Thursday were but a side show in the spectacle that has developed since Steinbrück made his comments on Tuesday night. "To a certain degree, I am horrified that two clowns won the election," Steinbrück said. One of them, he said in reference to Grillo, "is a professional clown who has nothing against being called one." The other, he went on, "is a clown with an excess of testosterone."
Circus Roncalli head Bernhard Paul as clown: "A circus clown is no fool that can be placed on the same level as Berlusconi."
Even Beppe Grillo himself, a shrill populist who has managed to tap into growing frustration in Italy with the country's political classes, waded into the fray on Thursday. He said that Steinbrück's comments speak to the candidate's "arrogance" and "limited political intelligence" and added that he is unfit for the Chancellery.
Germans, of course, can hardly be surprised at the lack of gravitas displayed by Steinbrück. The early weeks of his campaign were marked by a number of tongue-slips and ill-considered comments, compounded by his clumsy handling of questions regarding the amount of money he earned on the speaking circuit prior to being chosen to lead the SPD into the national election.
Furthermore, he also managed to stir up a couple of cross-border ruckuses with Switzerland as Merkel's finance minister in 2009. During months of back-and-forth relating to the Alpine country's role in helping wealthy Germans evade taxes, Steinbrück once seemed to compare Switzerland with Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso -- a comparison that neither country found particularly flattering. Another time, he referred to the Swiss as "the Indians" and implied that Germany was the cavalry, a comment which prodded Bern to call in the German ambassador for a scolding.
This week, criticism of Steinbrück is coming from closer to home. Volker Wissing, a senior parliamentarian with the Free Democrats, Merkel's junior coalition partners, said Steinbrück was "increasingly mutating into a German Peerlusconi." He went on to say that the SPD candidate has "clearly proved that he is a foreign policy risk." Michael Meister, a leading conservative in parliament with Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, said that "Steinbrück behaves like an axe in the forest."
'A Serious Matter'
But even fellow Social Democrats were less than impressed by Steinbrück's indiscretion. "We can't take the election result in Italy lightly or interpret it as a slip-up," said Peter Friedrich of the SPD, the minister for European affairs in the state government of Baden-Württemberg. Ulla Burchardt, chair of the German-Italian parliamentary group in German parliament, said that it is time to take a close look at what Grillo stands for. "People want a new form of politics," she said. "That is a serious matter."
European Parliament President Martin Schulz said: "In looking at the election, we would all be well-advised to understand that the Italians themselves elected these parties and these leaders."
Still, it was hard to ignore that many in Germany and Europe actually agree with Steinbrück's assessment of the political situation in Italy. Indeed, the British newsweekly Economist headlined its current issue, emblazoned with photos of Beppe and Berlusoni, with the headline "Send in the clowns."