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Bindi: Charm is Not Enough for Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti

The symbol of the new Italy, Prime Minister Mario Monti, is to meet with President Barack Obama. However, just like in 1992-1993, the window of opportunity in which he is operating will probably soon close if parties let domestic and self-interest considerations take over on a national imperative for permanent change.

Mario Monti
Alessia Pierdomenico | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Mario Monti

Current events in Italy recall the situation faced by Giuliano Amato’s 1992-93 government.

Like Monti, Amato became Prime Minister in a moment of economic and political emergency. In both cases, the EU monetary system was in the background of the crises and the need to respond to the EU’s requests for change gave the government a window of opportunity to change the country.

In both cases, this opportunity was eagerly seized.

Amato’s executive, decoupled from party dictates, implemented a number of measures that revived the Italian economy and began a dramatic change of the Italian public administration. Similarly, Monti is initiating a massive number of reforms. Just like in 1992-93, political parties are in disarray, facing growing public anger.

However, Amato was unable to finish his program of changes and in April 1994 Berlusconi came to power. Twenty years on, signs are that Monti might face a similar end. Government’s proposals were in fact recently rejected in parliament and the executive started using “confidence votes” to pass laws, traditionally a sign of weakness of Italian governments.

Just like Amato’s, Monti’s government is likely to end in the spring. Should the Democratic Party win the local spring elections, as projections show, the temptation of voting before Italians feel the costs of cuts and reforms, will be high. Same goes for the small aggregation of centrist parties, Monti’s main sponsor. Berlusconi’s party is facing internal centripetal tensions and it might, too, prefer to vote before it explodes. Last but not least, despite public statements, party leaders would be happy to again use the current electoral system whichsystem, which gives them the final decision on whom will be elected. However, an early vote would stop the process of reform, enhancing Italy’s lack of international credibility.

Italian politicians are parochial with only a vague understanding of European and international issues. Many seem convinced that Monti can (by himself) change Italy and restore its role in the world. Clearly, Monti’s undisputed personal respectability is helping but - without the full support of the political and administrative class - he cannot change the country, let alone its international stance.

Italy's image as an unreliable country is hard to forget. For the two decades, Italy has played the game of shifting alliances and roles - European honest broker vs temptations of power - with the result of being perceived unpredictable, thus unreliable. Domestically, individual interests were put before national interests: Italy appears to be stuck in the age of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, in which the victory of one faction over another is what counts, regardless of the damage to the country. Should this spirit prevail again, the possibilities for the country to change for good will come to a halt and its fate will be, once again, at stake.

Dr. Federiga Bindi is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS Johns Hopkins. She is author of Italy and the EU, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, 2011.