Friday, February 10, 2012
Changing international geometry. Monti in the US.
The invitation to the top table has always been a measure of prestige for leaders of Italian governments. Yesterday, Mario Monti met President Obama, less than three months after becoming prime minister, showing his weight in Washington. It was a guaranteed success; before he left the US ambassador explicitly endorsed Monti. In an interview in Corriere della Sera, David Thorne left no doubts “I think Italy has become the USA’s most trustworthy ally in Europe”.
The following day the president himself gave Monti fulsome support and praise in an interview with Maurizio Molinari in La Stampa “Under Monti’s leadership, Italy is taking impressive steps to modernise its economy and reduce its deficit”. He repeated that praise in person when they finally met and even upset his schedule by extending the meeting. The Monti triumph was crowned by a Time (international edition) cover story entitled “Can this man save Europe?” implicitly answering the question with an article inside entitled “Why Mario Monti is the most important man in Europe”.
Monti’s American trip is very visible evidence of Italy’s changed status. Over the last two months, it has become very clear that there are three leaders in the euro zone, not two. Monti is able to talk with authority to the EU and government leaders, (in English, French and German which is always an advantage), an authority which comes from his personal reputation and his skills as an economist. As prime minister and economics minister, he is a powerful presence in both the Council of Ministers and ECOFIN. He is not Merkel’s poodle (or dachshund or whatever canine metaphor is appropriate). He is very much his own man. This is why Obama was so welcoming. The United States fear an European meltdown almost as much as the Europeans.
On one score, at least, Monti has already shown his mettle – the markets act on that intangible variable confidence, almost as much as they act on hard numbers and Monti has re-established enough of it for the moment.
In the international geopolitical arena, Monti’s Italy is indeed a useful ally for the United States – there is little change from before in that a close alliance with the US has been one of the fundamental pillars of Italian foreign policy since World War II. In Syria, Italy has a definitely minor supporting role; Italy’s dependence on Russian gas hardly gives it leverage on Russia but Berlusconi’s close personal ties with Putin would not have changed the Russian stance or its support for Assad.
In Libya, Italy is back to playing a serious role, gas supplies have begun again which is a relief given this week’s cold snap and reduced Russian supplies. Last month Monti was in Tripoli mending fences. Renewed close commercial and political relations with Libya are also in the broader interests of both the US and EU.
The American success and the re-establishment of an authoritative Italian presence in Brussels obviously give Monti a bounce back home. As it is, he has to navigate between a European (mainly German) Scylla and a domestic Charibdis. He has already shown that he is part of the European directoire, able to talk on equal terms with Merkel, Sarkozy and Cameron. He now has American support. Together, they mean that he can face the Italian parliament and convince them that he is the right man to successfully defend Italian interests abroad.
His mere presence in the European summit changed the geometry of power – instead of having a two way tension between France and Germany, there is now a triangle for the euro and a quadrilateral with Britain for the wider issues. The new power dynamics mean that the chances of reaching some sort of closer fiscal union to protect the euro and the EU itself are much higher now than they were a couple of months ago whatever happens in Greece this coming week.