Former ambassador on Berlusconi, Monti and cutting Italian debt

Silvio Berlusconi has been a force in Italian politics during the past two decades. As the country’s prime minister and richest man, the media mogul managed to slip through sex scandals and criminal charges only to be forced out of office by Europe’s debt crisis.

As a new government led by economist Mario Monti takes place, Ronald Spogli talks about Berlusconi’s fall, what’s next for Italy and whether the United States should get involved in the eurozone’s tailspin. Spogli, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Italy from 2005 to 2009, is a Stanford trustee and major benefactor to the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

What will Italy’s government look like under Mario Monti, and how will it trim the country’s $2.5 trillion debt?

Monti is an economist by training and has been president of Bocconi University, Italy’s most prestigious business school. He was the European Commissioner and that position earned him international influence and experience. So here’s somebody who has economic savvy, institutional gravitas, and the ability to be perceived as above politics.

The new government is expected to carry out the stability program enacted immediately before Berlusconi’s resignation on Saturday.  This law contemplates asset sales to reduce debt, among other measures.  The idea of a wealth tax has been floated in Italy – which by most measures is the richest country on the continent – as a way to immediately and significantly pay down the nation’s debt. 

The Monti government is likely to consider this and other options to reduce the country’s indebtedness.  However, it will have to gain parliamentary approval for any new laws. And depending on the nature of the bill proposed, passage of legislation could prove problematic.

How did Berlusconi manage to survive sex scandals and corruption charges, only to be brought down by Italy’s financial crisis?

I think he survived because for most Italians, his personal life was less relevant than his actions and promises as a politician who could do good things for Italy.

He came into power in 1994, and his ability to dominate Italian politics for nearly two decades has been the main story. He came in with an expectation that as Italy’s richest man and as a successful businessman, he would help jumpstart a country that had begun to stall economically. The notion was that after stagnation had begun to creep in, Silvio Berlusconi was the person to break the logjam and move Italy forward.

But for the last 20 years, Italy has had half the economic growth rate of Europe. That’s the biggest issue against Berlusconi. But nobody is 100 percent convinced that he’s really gone for good. He has an amazing ability to resurrect himself. He’s proven that throughout his political career.

How does Italy’s debt burden fit in to the rest of Europe’s economic woes?


In terms of the sheer magnitude of the problem, the Italian circumstance dwarfs Greece’s situation and the ability of the initiatives meant to deal with other countries’ crises. The issue is whether the new Italian government will be able to calm the bond markets.

Restoring credibility is absolutely vital. The fundamental concern is that there’s no offered solution to an Italian debt problem. There is no bailout being contemplated that’s big enough to be able to deal with the issue, unlike Greece.

The euro crisis has claimed the political lives of prime ministers in Greece, Spain and Italy. Can we expect more high-profile political casualties?

It’s interesting how the markets – in such a short period of time – have forced a political change that the internal Italian political system has been unable to achieve for quite some time. It’s difficult to speculate as to whether those forces will move to more counties. But it certainly wasn’t contemplated that they’d have this impact on Italy, so its fair to say that nothing is completely off the table.

In the United States, candidates vying for the Republican nomination in next year’s election say America shouldn’t get involved in Europe’s financial mess. Is that the right attitude?

Europe is extremely important to the United States. Not just for economic reasons, but for political reasons. This is a European problem to solve. On the other hand, if it gets to the point where it continues to have a very damaging impact on the world’s capital markets, I think the resolve to keep it as an isolated problem may fade.

Beyond the narrowly defined economic impact of the crisis, we have many issues of global security that we cannot effectively deal with without the help of Europeans. If they’re going to go into a pronounced period of economic contraction, that’s going to heavily impact their ability to be a great partner for us.  Italy is a perfect example of this concern. We counted on its help in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. Those are expensive missions, and if the country doesn’t grow its economy, it’s harder for them to be a great American ally.  Italy’s economic situation extends to our basic international security interests.

Italy's economic crisis is the subject of a Nov. 18 presentation given by Roland Benedikter, a scholar at FSI's Europe Center.