President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, apologised on Monday for the controversial statements about “Italian Istria and Italian Dalmatia” he had made on Sunday while attending a commemoration of the Italian victims of the foibe at the Basovizza pit near the Italian town of Trieste.
The event commemorated the victims of the so-called foibe massacres, mass killings of Italians in the aftermath of World War II. The exact number of victims remains unknown and a point of controversy, with estimates ranging from hundreds to more than ten thousand.
Speaking at the event, Tajani said: “Long live Trieste, long live Italian Istria, long live Italian Dalmatia,” Italian media reported.
The words caused outrage in Croatia and Slovenia on Monday, with officials of both countries calling them an example of historical revisionism.
On Monday, Tajani issued a statement, saying his words were misinterpreted.
“It was not my intention to offend anyone. I just wanted to send a message of peace between peoples, so that what happened never happens again,” Tajani said.
He said his speech was meant to highlight peace between the three nations, and their contribution to the European project.
“My reference to Istria and Italian Dalmatia was in no way a territorial claim. I was referring to the Istrian and Dalmatian Italian-language exiles, their children and grandchildren, many of whom were present at the ceremony,” he said.
Croatian top state officials strongly condemned Tajani's words, with Prime Minister and leader of the ruling centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), Andrej Plenkovic, saying the statement has elements of territorial claims and revisionism.
"I spoke to Tajani today. I told him we were extremely displeased with such a statement, which is inappropriate, and we requested an explanation," Plenkovic said.
The HDZ is part of the European People's Party group in the European Parliament, just like Forza Italia, the Italian party in which Tajani is a key figure.
Croatian President, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, condemned Tajani’s words as well, adding she would notify Italian and EU institutions on the issue, while Croatian Foreign Minister, Marija Pejcinovic-Buric, said: "Such statements are not conducive to reconciliation, coexistence and all civilisation values on which the European Union was built.”
She added the statements were particularly problematic coming from a high-ranking official representing the European Parliament, an EU institution which was created so that war never happens in Europe again.
Croatian MEP, Tonino Picula of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), said that Istria and Dalmatia were historically Croatian regions and "that cannot be changed by any revisionism by the Italian right, Tajani and their allies in the EPP."
"Dalmatia and Istria suffered under the Italian fascist rule and won their freedom and joined with their mother country in the National Liberation Struggle, in which, along with Croats and Slovenians, Italian antifascists fought as well," said Picula.
Slovenian high officials called Tajani's words unacceptable and concerning.
Slovenian President Borut Pahor wrote to his Italian counterpart, Sergio Mattarella, voicing deep concern and saying it was not the first time that similar claims were voiced in Italy, while Foreign Minister Miro Cerar said the words were an unacceptable “falsification of our common history,” adding they incited fear.
Slovenian Prime Minister Marjan Sarec said on Twitter that Tajani's statements represented unheard-of historical revisionism.
"Fascism is a historical fact and its objective was also the destruction of the Slovenian people," he tweeted.