Berlusconi: a man visibly bored by economics and whose newspaper, il Giornale, described Angela Merkel’s Germany as “The Fourth Reich”
It is a strange but compelling political, economic and even moral drama. Strange, because the main protagonists are not conventional politicians: they are a professor, a hairy comedian and a joke-telling billionaire. Compelling, because the country is Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy which staggers under the burden of the world’s third-largest public debt. A drama, because how the story develops will determine the fate of the euro, and thus of whether the world stumbles towards recovery or collapses into a new Great Depression.
When did the story begin? For most people it was last November, when a sharp rise in Italy’s borrowing costs, a shambolic four-month-long process of budget-cutting that never happened, and the desertion of parliamentary supporters, all led to the resignation as prime minister of Silvio Berlusconi, the joke-telling, playboy billionaire who had led Italy’s government for eight of the previous ten years. The respected, even revered, president of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, appointed in his place an internationally renowned professor and former European Commissioner, Mario Monti, at the head of what Italians call a “technical government,” consisting mainly of fellow professors.
Outside Italy, Professor Monti’s seemingly sudden ascent from his old, quiet job presiding over a private business university in Milan, Bocconi, smelt undemocratic. This was especially so as in Greece a former central bank governor, Lucas Papademos, had been installed as prime minister at a similar moment. Professor Monti was rushed into parliament as a life senator, an appointment in Napolitano’s gift, which would be like the Queen appointing Howard Davies a life peer in order to make the former head of the London School of Economics Britain’s prime minister.
Few Italians thought it was undemocratic, however: the square outside the president’s grand residence in Rome, the Quirinale, a former home of Popes, was filled with crowds chiefly of young people celebrating Berlusconi’s fall; a YouTube image that went viral was film of an impromptu orchestra and choir singing Handel’s Hallelujah chorus.
It was a wonderfully appropriate image: the Hallelujahs to say goodbye and good riddance to a government drenched in scandal that had made Italy a laughing stock in international affairs (Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy, then president of France, had even…