At his first press conference as the new prime minister of Italy, Mario Monti said that “Italy must become an element of strength and not weakness of the European Union”. For a long time Italy was lost in Europe. Now, as it faces up to the challenges of the post-Berlusconi era, it has the chance to be a building block of post-crisis Europe.
With all the scorn heaped upon Berlusconi in his last days as prime minister, it is easy to forget that he won the 2008 elections with the largest majority in the history of the Italian Republic. Those that voted for him and his ruling coalition thought the time had come for passing and implementing major reforms. Those that voted against were more concerned that he could remain in power for 10 more years, and might even succeed President Napolitano as head of state.
Neither happened. The reforms dissolved into thin air, as both government and parliament became hostages of Berlusconi’s private interests, and a weak opposition. Even as the current disastrous economic, financial and political crisis began to take shape, the attempts at reform were pathetic. Ahead of the adoption of austerity measures in September, serious issues like tax evasion and pension and labour market reform were discussed and abandoned, fuelling distrust by the markets and Italy’s European partners.
That distrust soon became total, as the smirking, knowing response of Merkel and Sarkozy when asked about Berlusconi’s commitment to reform made perfectly clear. There had been simply too many broken promises.
This is why every single more day that Berlusconi stayed in power meant the country being cast further adrift. Resignation became the only way forward. Yesterday, President Napolitano asked Mario Monti to take on the hard task of bringing Italy back on track.
However, Italians should not fall into the trap of believing that the end of Berlusconi means the end of all the country’s problems. Although the markets have responded positively to the new government scenario, people need to understand that it is going to be hard, because there is much more than markets at stake.
Italyhas been waiting for 20 years for reforms to cut down its gigantic public dept (€1.9 trillion, or 120% of GDP), and to find a path to growth (From 2001 to 2010 the economy grew by only 3%).
I believe that Italy will make it - the country doesn't just account for 18% of EU GDP, but also has resources, energy, creativity and spirit. Private debt is low, the banking system is solid and the private sector healthy. Crucially, when Italians have been asked to make sacrifices (clearly explained), as in 1992 and when entering the euro in the early years of this century, they have done.
Monti is also the right person at “a never too late” time. He is competent, rigorous, respected and credible. He will have the courage and ambition to make Italy a “strength and not weakness of the European Union”. Monti does not just think of this crisis as a technical, economic one. The core of the crisis is political and concerns an entire continent.
The new government has the opportunity to both deal with the emergency and to look to the future.
There is no doubt that we need a combination of austerity and structural reforms. We also need new electoral legislation and to tackle tax evasion seriously. The latter is tied to criminality, is 60% higher than other OECD countries, and is estimated to amount to €549 billion a year (according to Eurispes).
As a true European, I am most interested in what this new government can do to build foundations for the longer term and future Italian generations. I hope it will not waste the opportunity that stems from the crisis. This is a leadership opportunity, and an opportunity to be central, not peripheral to the new Europe.
Europe is not simply a wider Germany, based on a Berlin consensus (this would not be good for Germany either). It is also not a fabricated and unbalanced Franco-German tandem. Europe is much more than that, and it needs Italy, which has spent so long lost in Europe, to find itself again.
Italy needs to count (again) in Europe, and provide leadership as significant sovereignty is pooled – Europe cannot be a lowest common denominator union of short sighted national interests. Europe needs cohesion and it needs the contribution of a reformed Italy. Viva l’Italia! Viva l’Europa!
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