Monday 11 December 2017

Bunga-bunga party is over for Berlusconi

But will his successor live up to the nickname, Super Mario, and rescue debt-crippled Italy, asks Ivor Roberts

So the Berlusconi era finally ended last night. After surviving over 50 confidence votes, innumerable (well, 23 to be precise) trials and investigations mainly about financial improprieties and corruption, sex scandals (including the hilariously named bunga-bunga parties), the man whom one wag described as a cross between Hugh Hefner (of Playboy fame) and the Emperor Tiberius has now been brought down by the financial markets. Ironic, given the fact that he is the single richest man in Italy (worth $6bn according to Forbes).

My first meeting with Berlusconi after my arrival in Rome as British ambassador culminated in his telling me a highly risque joke which had his courtiers squirming with embarrassment. A few months later, when I accompanied Tony Blair to call on Berlusconi, the latter asked me whether I'd found a good lover yet. Fortunately Blair's Italian was not up to scratch, so this particular bit of whimsy was lost in non-translation.

These private utterances have been mirrored on the wider stage. Describing a Socialist MEP as reminding him of a concentration camp guard, making cuckold signs in a heads-of-government meeting, describing Obama as "suntanned", all constituted a pattern of gaffes which made him a laughing stock and humiliated his country.

analysis End of democracY pages 26, 28, 29

But the buffoonery now has to stop. Italy is staring into the abyss. The man who has dominated Italian politics for the best part of two decades has brought his country to the brink.

From a position of domestic political strength with substantial parliamentary majorities, he has frittered away his advantages by failing to undertake and execute some of the essential structural changes and market reforms, the absence of which has so bedevilled the Italian economy. Tax evasion, an excessively generous benefit system, pensions in particular, all crying out for reform; all largely untouched until very recently. The failure to tackle them has left a crippling level of public debt of 118 per cent of GDP. He seems to have been hobbled by indecision, hamstrung by the need to accommodate coalition and allies' interests and focussed instead on enacting legislation to grant him immunity from prosecution.

While the economy was dragged down by the lowest growth rates in Europe (an average of 0.75 per cent per annum over the last 15 years), a lack of competitiveness which could no longer be solved by devaluation, poor levels of investment and excessive regulation, Berlusconi might be more aptly compared to the Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burnt than to Tiberius.

So now he's leaving, what happens next? All the indications are that the former Italian EU Commissioner, Mario Monti, will be sworn in to succeed him. Monti is a brilliant apolitical economist who was the intellectual star of the European Commissions he served in from 1994 to 2004 as

Competition and then Internal Market Commissioner. Super Mario, as he was called, has been the head of the Bocconi University in Milan, Italy's premier business school since leaving Brussels. He will preside over a technocrat-dominated government of probably a dozen or so ministers.

It will need more than the goodwill of the markets and of Italian business to survive beyond a honeymoon period. It can count on the support of the centre-left parties and initially, at least, even of Berlusconi's party, the People of Freedom. They will, they say, support the government like a flying buttress from the outside. They will also be hoping to regroup without the charismatic Berlusconi in time for general elections which may be as early as next spring if the economic situation is not too febrile.

But Berlusconi's party, without him, has no real raison d'etre. It was brought into existence by Berlusconi as a disparate collection of old Christian Democrats, Socialists and business cronies, all of whom owed him personal allegiance often for financial reasons. Thus when some of them abstained in a critical vote last week which revealed he had lost his parliamentary majority, he categorised them as 'traitors'. If headless and pointless, they now fracture, the political panorama may shift as drastically as it did in the early Nineties when in a move known as the transition to the Second Republic, the five parties of government simply disappeared in the wake of corruption scandals.

But this is speculation for another day. Monti will have difficult decisions to take if the Italian economy is to be restored to growth and increased competitiveness which alone can ultimately solve the debt problem. Taking office as the eurozone is in chaos and the wider EU is facing a double-dip recession is accepting the ultimate poisoned chalice. If we are still calling him Super Mario in a year's time he will have richly deserved his soubriquet.

Sir Ivor Roberts is President of Trinity College, Oxford, is a former British ambassador to Ireland, Italy and Yugoslavia

Sunday Independent

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