Italy’s populist parties ‘have put water into their anti-EU wine,’ says former PM

  • Former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti says the country's populist parties have diluted their anti-EU narratives
  • Italy's next elections will be held in May 2018
  • A prolonged recession has left the Italian banking system in dire need of reform

Former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti described the country's populist parties as having lost some of their teeth.

"It will be a very relevant force, but not necessarily a very dominant force," he told CNBC Friday regarding the country's Five Star Movement, Italy's premier populist and Euroskeptic group.

"Concerning the two populist movements in Italy, the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, of course I am concerned, but I must also underline that both have put a lot of water into their anti-EU wine and anti-euro wine, especially after the defeat of Marine Le Pen in France. Now the language they have in Italy is much less opposed to the EU and to the euro."

Populist parties in Italy garnered a collective 50 percent of votes in the country's last general election in 2013 and new elections are due before May 2018.

Greater euro zone integration is not off the table, the former leader believes, thanks to the election of President Emmanuel Macron in France whose opponent, Marine Le Pen, brought France's far-right Front National closer to power than any time in its history. Populist politics are on the rise in Europe, with more than 30 million people voting for broadly right-wing populist parties in EU countries in the last five years.

Turning to financial issues, Monti addressed Italy's banking woes, which on Thursday saw Italian lender Banca Carige fail to win backing from banks in a critical cash call. Italy's banks have been plagued by non-performing loans and undercapitalization following a prolonged recession and sovereign debt crisis in 2011.

"Italian banks have had their moment of difficulty later than other banks in Europe due to a more prolonged recession," the former PM explained. "But the problem is less serious than has been elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is urgent to give further signals. But I think this is really not one of the major issues for Europe."

Whether Italy's elections will mean a new, tougher approach to Italy's banking situation is "very difficult to tell," Monti said. "It's not an instant affair to set up a government, and it may take some time. The situation of the banks is very much in the hands of the European authorities and the Bank of Italy, and in spite of the fuss being made around that, also for pre-electoral reasons, the situation is after all under control."

Patrizia Cortellessa | Pacific Press | LightRocket via Getty Images

In the past year, three large Italian banks were widely considered to have failed – Italy's fourth largest bank MPS (Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena) underwent precautionary recapitalization at the cost of 6.6 billion euros ($7.78 million) to the Italian taxpayer, and regional banks Veneto Banca and Banca Popolare di Vicenza were acquired by a larger bank.

On the upside, Italy in 2013 was removed from Europe's excessive debt procedure, and this year introduced sweeping pension and labor markets reforms. Yet despite an improved growth forecast for 2017 of 1.5 percent, the IMF predicts the country will not return to pre-crisis levels for another decade.

Mario Monti, an economist, served as Italy's unelected prime minister from 2011 to 2013, leading a team of technocrats in the wake of the country's debt crisis.