Immediately after Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti announced that he would resign after parliament approved the national budget for 2013, 76-year old Silvio Berlusconi hinted that he wouldn’t mind running for the post of prime minister for the sixth time. This statement provoked a strong reaction from the European Union – Berlusconi’s departure was one of the EU’s main conditions for helping Italy out of the crisis.
Former European Commissioner Mario Monti took control of the highest political office in Italy in November 2011, though to call a spade a spade, the EU practically imposed this trusted crisis-manager on the debt-ridden country. Soon thereafter, a package of tough anti-crisis measures was adopted – following the European Union’s recipe, of course. It was initially suggested that the Monti government would be a technocratic one and new elections would be held before the appointed time. And so it was: In early December, the Prime Minister announced that he would resign immediately after the 2013 budget was approved by the Italian parliament. Of course, nothing prevents Monti from not leaving politics at once, in order to participate in the election as the leader of one of the centrist electoral blocs. However, the technocratic government, which forced Italians to tighten their belts to the max, does not enjoy the warm support from voters needed to ensure a victory. Perhaps the role of crisis manager who temporarily stepped off to the side in order to make way for professional politicians might not be such a bad thing for Monti.
What suits Italy in the new elections? In mid-December, statistical data were released showing that the national debt for the first time in history exceeded €2 trillion, and that could increase 8-10% by the end of the year. Opponents from the right accuse Monti of following instructions from Germany to a T – instructions that lead not to recovery, but deeper into crisis. Unemployment data is also disappointing, placing the Prime Minister under fire from left-wing parties and trade unions. It was amidst this situation that Berlusconi, out of the blue, made a statement about his intent to return to the big game.
Rough Days for the Cavalier
It should be said that the former Prime Minister’s last few months have been a real test of strength. Two concurrent court cases on allegations of sexual crimes and tax crimes are the first in a long time not to turn out in his favor. In late October, the Cavalier (Italian journalists’ nickname for Berlusconi) was sentenced to four years in prison for large-scale tax evasion, but during sentencing, the judge said that, in view of the country’s amnesty rules, Berlusconi should not be imprisoned for more than a year. Few in Italy, however, believe that it will come to that – by law, the Cavalier still has the right to two appeals, and a reduction of the sentence within that time is quite likely. There is yet another, more graceful was of escaping punishment: to invoke immunity as Prime Minister.
Berlusconi has been very cautious, however, in voicing criticism of Monti. “As a person who feels personally responsible for the country, I cannot not allow Italy to once again spiral into a recession,” said the former Prime Minister, explaining his intention to return to the Palazzo Chigi (residence of the Prime Minister). The first to react to the Cavalier’s announcements were the financial markets: The euro went down and Italian stocks fell. The potential return of Berlusconi delighted his loyalists and cheered his party’s inner circle. But the decision caused extreme disapproval, bordering on outrage, from former allies of the National Alliance. According to Italy’s political establishment, Berlusconi broke the unspoken contract mandating that he stay out of politics.
The Cavalier won a little bit back by saying that he would not contend in the elections against the current Prime Minister if the latter headed the centrist forces. But he has begun developing a plan for a grand battle, which will apparently continue until the parliamentary elections.
European Union Against Voldemort
“The technocrats have tormented the country,” say Italian political analysts in unison, meaning that Berlusconi can most likely count on the support of those most affected by the anti-crisis measures. Yet recent scandals seem to have shaken the undying love Italians had for the Cavalier not so long ago. “I’m looking for a suitable reason not to run. Because then I could also avoid a dangerous exit from the arena after a devastating defeat,” said Berlusconi with surprising frankness, in an interview with a TV station that he owns. “Look at how things ended with Nicolas Sarkozy…” Indeed, the campaign launched against him in Italy, and more importantly in Europe, makes it extremely difficult for him to win reelection.
“Mario Monti has made impressive progress in restoring the financial welfare of Italy, which has high debt and is in a deep recession,” says German political analyst Gerd Appenzeller. “The EU countries and the financial markets felt confidence in the country and its Prime Minister, reflected in decreased interest rates on Italian government bonds. Monti’s resignation is therefore logical, since it allows for early elections. But the very idea that Berlusconi, the Lord Voldemort of European politics, could come to power again, will drive up the cost for Italy to procure loans and thus drive up the debt.”
Comparisons with French President François Hollande, who made a multitude of populist promises during the campaign, are in this case most likely inappropriate: It seems that nobody in Europe really does not admit that Hollande will suddenly start keeping his commitments to voters. But experts seem to have no doubts about Berlusconi’s ability to take the most drastic populist steps, which will be immediately destructive, not just for Italy’s economy but for all of Europe. “No one is expecting reasonable solutions from him,” says Appenzeller with evident agitation. “We can expect that Berlusconi will admire the ruins of Rome burning like a late-Roman dictator.”
Perhaps this is why EU leaders have, contrary to usual diplomatic practice, allowed themselves to direct rather sharp statements at the Cavalier. “I don’t think Berlusconi has very good prospects in the elections. Though it seems he himself has ruled out candidacy, with him everything changes with from one day to the next,” said François Hollande. President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso even met with Berlusconi in Brussels and made it unequivocally clear that a return is highly undesirable. “You can guess what I told him and what I am telling you,” Barroso said the next day in a conversation with Monti. “First and foremost, it is imperative that Italy take the chosen path of stability and reform. This is very important for Italy, and of course, for the European Union.”
Text by Ekaterina Tikhomirova