The European Parliament's first far-right political group collapsed on Thursday after Italian MEP Alessandra Mussolini branded the group's Romanian members as "habitual law breakers", senior parliament officials said.
Officials said the comments by the grand-daughter of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini prompted the five MEPs from the Greater Romania Party to withdraw from the Independence, Tradition and Sovereignty (ITS) group.
"The announcement was made via an email on the parliament's internal email system. It means the group now does not have enough members to form a political grouping in the parliament," one official told Reuters.
According to the email, written in English and French by the leadership of the Greater Romania Party and obtained later by Reuters, Mussolini described Romanians as "habitual law breakers" and said "the Romanian Ambassador to Italy should be expelled".
Neither Mussolini, the group's spokeswoman, nor Romanian MEP Eugen Mihaescu, ITS vice-chairman, were available for comment.
Last week Italian police were given greater powers to expel EU immigrants, prompted by public anger in Italy at a series of crimes blamed on poor Romanian migrants. The new law has caused increased tension between the two countries.
NO PROMINENT POSITION
"Under these conditions, the Greater Romania Party doesn't want to have any relationship -- not even a formal one -- with Alessandra Mussolini who dares to make such a sacrilege towards our people," the email said.
"The unconsciousness of this lady ... leaving us to understand that all the Romanians are living like delinquents and are making dreadful crimes remind us of her grand-father, the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and of her uncle, Galeazzo Ciano, who caused serious wounds in the history of our people."
The ultra-right and eurosceptic ITS was formed in January, but was denied any prominent position on the assembly's influential committees when the other main groupings combined to boycott them.
Martin Schulz, leader of the Socialists in the assembly described the news as "very good for Europe".
Leader of the Liberal group Graham Watson told Reuters: "ITS are a casualty of their own philosophy which paints all foreigners into a single mould and encourages xenophobic and racist comments and remarks which have no place in the EU."
Political groups in the assembly, which control the EU legislature's agenda, voting pacts and committee seats, require a minimum of 21 members from six countries. Before the departure of the Romanian MEPs, the ITS had 23 members -- a tiny fraction of the 785 lawmakers in the assembly.