Plaudits for Monti as he steers Italy back on course

Fri, Feb 24, 2012, 00:00

YOU COULD call it the “sense of relief” factor. Almost everywhere Italian prime minister Mario Monti goes these days, especially if it is to foreign parts, he is received with everything from open arms to standing ovations.

In recent weeks, Mr Monti, who meets Taoiseach Enda Kenny in Rome this morning, has been feted on a truly global scale that stretches from the White House to the European Parliament, passing via the City of London and Wall Street in New York.

Earlier this month, he featured on the cover of Timemagazine under the headline, “Can This Man Save Europe?” US president Barack Obama, meeting him in Washington two weeks ago, praised his “strong start” as Italian prime minister “at a very difficult time”.

When he took office in mid-November, replacing media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, Italy was going through a very difficult time. With the infamous bond “spread” rising by the minute, it was clear the markets had lost all faith in the ability of his scandal-plagued predecessor to steer the Italian ship through some very stormy waters.

Some 100 or so days later, confidence appears to have been restored. The yield on Italy’s 10-year bond has shrunk from a euro era record of 7.26 per cent in late November to 5.57 per cent yesterday. Disaster, in the shape of the collapse of the euro zone’s third largest economy, has been avoided.

A standing ovation for Mr Monti in the Strasbourg parliament earlier this month only served to underline the “relief factor”. After all, some commentators suggest Mr Berlusconi’s increasingly muddled leadership had left Italy about two weeks away from bankruptcy.

That the international community should look on Mr Monti with a sense of relief comes as no surprise. Despite the harsh medicine doled out by his government of “technocrats”, with tax hikes, pension reform and spending cuts, Italian approval ratings remain high, at around 60 per cent according to a poll this week by the Istituto Piepoli.

Clearly, this has much to do with the fact that the 68-year-old former EU commissioner and ex-president of the Bocconi University in Milan, is a shrewd, experienced and skilful operator. How else could a “technocrat” steer the ship without a single parliamentary vote of his own?

Many Italians also appreciate the sharp contrast in style between “sober”, “understated” and “Anglo-Saxon” Mr Monti and his flamboyant predecessor.

When Mr Monti’s wife, Elsa, travelled to Rome from Milan to be with him for the crucial week of government consultations last November, she did so by train. And he went to Rome’s Termini station to meet her, wheeling her luggage along the platform.

In contrast to his predecessor, Mr Monti has chosen to live in the not especially comfortable surrounds of Palazzo Chigi, the official residence. He held the family’s New Year’s Eve party there this year, paid for by himself and attended by children and grandchildren. Hardly the “bunga, bunga” lifestyle.

Not that Mr Monti is a pauper. His tax declarations, released with those of the rest of his cabinet, at his request this week, show he earned just over €1 million in 2010, while his portfolio of bonds and shares is worth €11 million. He also owns 16 houses, apartments and shops. All in all, a typically successful member of the canny northern Italian bourgeoisie.

Typical of his governance was his call last week to effectively cancel Rome’s bid for the 2020 Olympics.

There has been enough waste around here, thank you very much.