No love lost between Merkel and former PM

Wed, Dec 12, 2012, 00:00

Analysis:Germany’s love of all things Italian was immortalised by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s hymn to the country “where the lemon blossom grows”.

In the last few years, however, the air between Rome and Berlin has been poisoned by insinuation, accusation and insult.

The low point came with last year’s allegedly unflattering remarks by former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi about Angela Merkel’s figure. Weeks later the German chancellor, when quizzed about her confidence in the Italian billionaire, responded with a crooked smile and a heavenward gaze.

On October 20th, 2011, with the euro zone crisis lapping at Italy’s door, the German leader made a confidential phone call to Italian president Giorgio Napolitano.

With markets unconvinced by Berlusconi’s reform efforts, Merkel reportedly wondered to the head of state whether Italy needed a new prime minister. When news of the call leaked, German officials denied Merkel was interfering in Italy’s domestic affairs. But less than a month later, Italy had a new technocrat leader: Mario Monti.

Now poised for another bid for power, Berlusconi attacked Monti for submitting to a German diktat. Berlin hit back, saying it would not allow itself to be used as a target in a “populist election campaign”.

“Neither Germany nor Europe is to blame for the difficulties in Italy,” said German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle. “Germany has always been a great help in overcoming the problems.”

Departure from Monti’s reforms would be “sad” for Italy and “dangerous” for Europe.

Merkel rowed in, letting it be known she “valued highly” her co-operation with Monti and his restoration of investor confidence in Italy. “Thus I’m confident that the Italian people will make a decision that will continue to bring Italy down a good path,” she said.

Italian politicians said this support from Berlin might hurt more than help the technocrat leader. “The admiration for Mario Monti is larger abroad than at home,” said politician Nichi Vendola.

A Financial Times opinion poll suggests Berlusconi is hoping to capitalise on the number of Italians who believe Germany’s EU influence is “too strong” – up 30 points to 83 per cent in a year.