The suggestion by the president of the European Parliament that Benito Mussolini did "positive things" for Italy has provoked uproar and calls for resignation from MEPs and European political parties.
The comments mark another embarrassing moment for the centre-right's European People's Party, which is already trying to distance itself from wayward members like Hungarian populist Viktor Orban.
Antonio Tajani, whose Forza Italia party was led by Silvio Berlusconi, made the comments in an interview on a popular radio show, La Zanzara ("The Mosquito").
“Mussolini?” he said, “Until he declared war against the whole world following Hitler, until he promoted racial laws [against Jews], apart from the dramatic event of Matteotti [a socialist murdered by the fascists in the mid-20s], he did positive things to realise infrastructures in our country.”
“One must be objective,” Mr Tajani reportedly claimed. “I’m not a fascist, I have never been a fascist and I don’t share his political thought, but if we must be honest, he built roads, bridges, buildings . . . he reclaimed many parts of our Italy.”
The “wrong things are very serious: Matteotti, racial laws, war. These are all unacceptable things,” he also said. Mussolini was “no champion of democracy” and he decried anti-Jewish laws as “crazy” and the declaration of war as “an act of suicide”.
But Mr Tajani's denial of fascist politics rang somewhat hollow in the middle of Italian regional elections, when he has been out campaigning on a joint platform with far-right populist La Liga led by interior minister Matteo Salvini, and the openly fascist Brothers of Italy. Mr Salvini has in the past also been known to cite Il Duce.
Mussolini’s granddaughter, Alessandra, is a Forza Italia member and MEP.
On Twitter, Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan wrote, tongue firmly in cheek, that Mussolini “may be responsible for 430,000+ murders but, hey check out his roads and bridges! Seriously this is the president of the EU Parliament.”
"Someone who finds merits in the deadly fascist regimes of the past is unworthy to remain president of the European parliament," the co-chair of the Green group, Philippe Lamberts, tweeted.
Mr Tajani was also in trouble last month with Slovenian and Croatian leaders who condemned him for remarks seen as suggesting an Italian claim on their territory. Another nod, scarcely accidental, to the nationalist right.
Meanwhile the EPP's other thorn, Mr Orbán, has apologised to critics from parties seeking his expulsion from the EPP, including Fine Gael, for calling them "useful idiots".
The term “is in fact a quote from [Vladimir] Lenin, with which I intended to criticise a certain policy and not certain politicians,” Mr Orbán said in a letter. “I would hereby like to express my apologies if you found my quote personally offensive,” he added.
The apology is unlikely to stop the expulsion moves.more facism” is placed on the desk of a