x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A steadier hand for Italy and EU states

Gossip writers will miss Silvio Berlusconi, but right now Europe needs leaders who are technocratic, not flamboyant.

Over the course of Silvio Berlusconi's 17 years at the apex of Italy's public life, his numerous critics often predicted his downfall, but were less certain about what would cause it. At various times the charges against him included shameless political patronage, abuse of power to bolster his private interests, partisan use of his media empire, surreal corporate accounting and unseemly - or worse - behaviour with young women.

But the last straw, finally, was not any of those scandals. The Italian prime minister has now been added to the list of European leaders recently pushed or prodded out of office by dreary old debt.

The gossip columnists will miss him. Yet to be sure, Mr Berlusconi remains a power in politics and media, and a very wealthy man; indeed some are saying that at age 75 he may not be done with politics.

But politics may be done with him; tellingly, Italian stock prices jumped on news of his departure. First elected in 1994 as a free-market bureaucracy-buster, Mr Berlusconi has presided, through three terms, over a stagnant economy and great growth in public debt. Finally the pressure for austerity measures melted his parliamentary majority.

If he had the stomach for it, Mr Berlusconi could organise quite a farewell party with other European leaders unseated by debt: Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Greece could all send former leaders. Strikingly, Europe today has not even one leader with a clear plan to master, or even cope with, the debt crisis. That is just as well: these times call for leaders with management skills, not just personal charm.

In Rome, talks on formation of a new government continue. To outsiders the process seems as chaotic as the eternal city's traffic, but the man most mentioned to emerge as prime minister, Mario Monti, is very different from Mr Berlusconi. Mr Monti is an economist and a manager. He has a lot in common with Lucas Papademos, Greece's new prime minister, who is an economist, banker and scholar.

Imposing austerity, calming markets and emanating serene purpose, whether it's done as a partisan endeavour or through a national-unity coalition, requires a skill set not often found in flamboyant leaders. Europe could use some technocrats just now.