Germany isn’t the only EU country where serious ongoing economic problems are leading to political gridlock. Italy’s situation is no better, and arguably worse. This ‘worse’ aspect was pushed into the headlines yesterday by the resignation of Economy Minister Domenico Siniscalco. This is sending shock waves throughout the entire Italian political system. It still isn’t clear at the time of writing whether the Berlusconi government can survive, especially given the gravity of the underlying problem which is the need to make severe budget cuts when Italy is in a prolonged recession and elections loom sometime next spring.
Essentially Siniscalco quit because of continuing government infighting over the 2006 budget and over the administrationï¿½s failure to force the resignation of Bank of Italy Governor Antonio Fazio following the scandal produced by accusations that he showed bias against Dutch bank ABN AMRO during a takeover battle for the Italian Banca Antonveneta SpA.
Both these issues are serious. The Bank of Italy problem may be getting most of the headline coverage, but the issues over the competitiveness of the economy and the state of the budget are possibly even more important. Italy’s public debt currently stands at over 105% of GDP, (and the overall situation is described by some as ‘worse than Botswana‘). This years annual deficit will certainly be over the 3% SGP limit and Italy has already had an excess deficit procedure initiated against it by the EU Commission. Effectively the Italian government has been given two years to enter a path of serious structural deficit reduction. This is what produces the recurring political crisis.
Italy is also facing a campaign for a referendum on the question of a return to the Lira lead by Berlusconi’s coalition partners in the Northern League. It isn’t entirely clear where Berlusconi himself actually stands in all this, indeed in a party rally on July 28 he described the euro as a ‘disaster’ for Italy.
Also it is important to note that Siniscalco’s resignation comes after a long battle with the EU’s Eurostat over the fiability of Italy’s official statistics, and Siniscalco, it seems, has not been entirely excempt from criticism in this affair: maybe he just decided enough was enough. Basta. And I entirely endorse the sentiment.
Update: The Economist now has a general outine of the issues posed by Siniscalco’s departure, and this article from Reuter’s describes the incredible staying power of Antonio Fazio. Fazio it will be remembered was also under fire in an earlier ‘houshold name’ Italian scandal: the Parmalat affair. On that occassion he ‘saw off’ Siniscalco’s predecessor Giulio Tremonti (who is incidentally stongly tipped to replace Sinascalco).
The IMF WEO report cited in my post on the German deficit aslo has this to say on Italy:
“The IMF staffï¿½s assessment of present budgetary policies, particularly in the largest countries, suggests they fall far short of meeting this requirement, with most showing little improvement or a deterioration in 2005ï¿½06; in particular, in Italy, significantï¿½and as yet unidentifiedï¿½adjustment will be required to reduce the general government deficit to the authoritiesï¿½ target of 3.8 percent of GDP in 2006. This will pose a key test of the revised Stability and Growth Pact procedures, and it will be important that the additional flexibility they allow is not used as an excuse to postpone adjustment altogether.”
As they say “it will be important that ….not used as an excuse”, but Siniscalco’s departure hardly inspires confidence that the opportunity won’t be seized.
Update 2: Reuters has just announced that Tremonti will be the next Italian Economy Minister, in which case it might be just worth reading this piece from International Herald Tribune just to bring everyone up to speed on the fact that it was Tremonti who was instrumental in ousting former WTO head and then Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero following the scandal which occurred on the day the euro was to be introduced in Italy. It will be recalled that Ruggiero was sacked after saying he was “filled with sadness” by his fellow ministers’ lack of commitment to the new single currency and to European integration. The fellow minister he was referring to was, of course, Giulio Tremonti.
Just to rub it in, lets go back to early January 2004:
While Ruggiero, a europhile diplomat and former head of the World Trade Organization, has pushed for a continuation of strong, pro-European policies, others like economy minister Giulio Tremonti have adopted a more eurosceptic stance.
Berlusconi is also trying to encourage his country to be more enthusiastic about the euro, which was introduced in 12 countries on January 1. It lags behind other countries in the eurozone with only 10 percent of cash transactions being carried out in the euro, the most recent figures reveal.
Long queues formed outside banks, stations and post offices during the introduction of the coins and notes, and citizens complained about a shortage of the currency. The figure compares unfavourably with other nations. The average figure in the eurozone is 20 percent with some individual countries being as high as 50 percent.
But one EU spokesman said it was not surprising that Italians were using the new currency less, as fewer cash dispensers were converted ahead of the changeover and many businesses chose not to receive euros in advance.
Berlusconi’s office tried to calm nerves by issuing a statement which hailed the creation of the euro and stressed the prime minister’s pro-European credentials