Italy on collision course with ECB over austerity
Italy’s Pier luigi Bersani vowed to break free of the country’s austerity regime as he laid out plans for a centre-Left government, risking a serious clash with Germany and the European Central Bank.
“We must leave the austerity cage,” he told leaders of his Democrat Party (Pd), responding to Italy’s electoral earthquake by tearing up his pre-election programme.
“A change of course is absolutely necessary given that five years of austerity and attacks on workers have pushed up public debt levels across Europe,” he said.
“The vicious circle between belt-tightening and recession is putting representative government at risk and making it impossible to govern. The immediate emergency is the real economy and joblessness,” he said.
The pledge puts Mr Bersani on a collision course with the ECB, which is constrained from helping to shore up the Italian bond market unless Rome complies with Europe’s austerity agenda.
“Italian voters may have effectively voted away the ECB safety net,” said Christian Schulz from Berenberg Bank. The central bank cannot activate its bond purchase programme (OMT) unless Italy requests a rescue from the EMU bail-out fund, and that in turn requires a vote in Germany’s Bundestag.
“The ECB cannot – and will not want to – do anything to help Italy after the inconclusive election result, even if borrowing costs spiral out of control,” he said.
Mr Bersani’s Democrats (Pd) and its allies control the lower house but failed to win the senate. He is hoping for tacit support on a law-by-law basis from the Five Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo.
Mr Grillo has responded with a volley of anathemas, calling Mr Bersani a relic from a defunct political order that must be swept away by civic revolution. Yet many of his 163 senators and deputies say the movement should seek common ground with the Pd.
Mr Bersani said Italy should mobilize its EU voting weight to push for an EU-wide change of course. He has natural allies in Paris.
French finance minister Pierre Moscovici warned EMU colleagues on Monday that current policies “risk a loss of social and political confidence across Europe. We must not pile austerity on top of recession”.
Mr Moscovici said France would need an extra year to meet its deficit target of 3pc of GDP and called for action to tackle the root of the crisis with an EMU-wide growth strategy.
French officials are deeply alarmed by the relentless upward rise in France’s unemployment rate to 10.6pc, or 26.9pc for youth. President Francois Hollande’s popularity ratings have crashed from 55pc to 30pc since his election in May, the fastest decline ever recorded for a French leader.
Italy, France, and Spain toyed with a Latin bloc alliance last year to confront Germany over EMU’s contractionary policy mix, but the initiative faded.
Mr Hollande pulled back from a showdown with Berlin and ultimately pushed through further fiscal cuts and reforms, while Italy’s Mario Monti was never willing to jeopardise the European Project that he served for ten years as a commissioner.
Critics says Mr Monti, whose Civic Choice list won just 10pc of the vote, went native in Brussels long ago and has been slow to understand the deeper political crisis unfolding in Italy.
The outgoing premier gave them fresh ammunition today, saying that it would be better to hold fresh elections than to see an anti-EU government to take power.
It is unclear whether a second vote would achieve what he intends. The latest snap polls show that Mr Grillo’s support is still rising, jumping from 25pc to 28pc.
Ominously, nostalgia for Fascist leader Benito Mussolini has started to emerge as the post-War order crumbles. Two key figures have praised elements of Fascist rule over the last two days.
A leader of the Five Star Movement professed “fascination” with the Fascist sense of the Italian state and the family, while the deputy state secretary of the economy said Mussolini “governed well until 1935.” The taboos are falling one by one.