A month before Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano called on him to form a government of technocrats, Mario Monti wrote a stern editorial in the Corriere della Sera newspaper to call attention to the risk that, having once been a midwife to the European Union, Italy might become its gravedigger. In just a few months at the helm, that prognosis has been radically reversed when Monti met U.S. President Barack Obama in February for talks that were apparently only bi-lateral, he in fact was seen by the usually sceptical American press as representing the EU as a whole. Their verdict was that the euro’s rescue was primarily contingent on Italy.
In short, at the height of the eurozone crisis, the American president met not with Angela Merkel or Nicolas Sarkozy but with the “technician” Mario Monti as the bearer of key messages from the German Chancellor. For a country that only a few months earlier had so little credibility, how should one explain this “Italian miracle”?
It should be no surprise that Mario Monti and his European affairs minister Enzo Moavero are so highly regarded at the institutional level of the EU: when the last 20 years both have spent more time in Brussels than in Rome. But this is far from being the sole strength of the Monti government. Italy’s renewed European credibility rests on a four point strategy.
Its first element is the time honoured and often successful Italian tactic to turning bi-lateral agreements between Paris and Berlin into common European policies, to render them “communautaire”. For the fiscal pact and the new eurozone-plus treaty, the Italian government is seeking to strengthen the ties and the role of the EU institutions so as to prevent inter-governmental factors from inevitably prevailing to the detriment of countries like Italy that are far less powerful than France or Germany.
But a dialogue with the EU institutional “dynamo” is in itself not enough unless other countries follow suit. The Roman government’s second move has been to build a wider coalition to soften some of the sharper features of the German and French approach. Hence Monti’s meetings with government leaders of Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands and even the UK.
And because it is so vital to be domestically credible too, the third tactic employed by Monti’s administration has been to leverage EU policies and directives to back up its own moves for rigid budget discipline along with measures to reform the labour market.
Monti’s fourth move, once Italy’s international credibility began to be restored, was to bring a number of specific proposals to the EU table. These included the urgent need for a strong firewall to check the spread of international speculation, an end to national protectionist policies or services within the EU, including some German ones, and the speedy incorporation of the new inter-governmental treaty into the Lisbon treaty through its reinforced co-operation mechanism.
The Monti government has set Italy back on the path to being a progressive EU partner, as befits one of the founders and driving forces of European integration. But there remains the very real doubt over the lifespan of his government. Although he has set the country on a steady course and will be able to steer it for a while, his lack of a democratic mandate means he will not be able to see it through. The question now is whether the political parties of today, and those that may emerge from the elections due in the spring of next year, will be able to build on his achievements.
Gianni Bonvicini is Executive Vice President of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome.