Huffington Post Italia politics reporter Alessandro de Angelis sat down last week with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for an exclusive interview in his office in Rome. It was the first time the former leader, rumored to be eyeing a return to the national stage for the election in April 2013, had spoken to an online media organization.
During the wide-ranging interview, the former premier of Italy criticized current Prime Minister Mario Monti for not being courageous enough, and for paying too much attention to the left's economic agenda. He also attacked Germany, which he referred to as 'hegemonic,' and once again raised the danger of communist victory in Italy.
Before the interview got underway, Berlusconi was eager to mention to HuffPost's reporter his significant weight loss ("16 pounds and eight more to go") -- a sign of his readiness to run again?
Prime Minister Berlusconi, let's begin with Mario Monti, or rather with a year of Monti as premier. This year, your party voted yes, albeit with some discomfort, to all the government's measures. Actions speak louder than words in terms of evident support for the executive, although your more recent statements seem less supportive. How would you judge the results at the one year mark?
Professor Monti was the best possible prime minister of an emergency government because he had the backing of both the majority and the opposition and would best be able to face the crisis. Some time ago he had been my own choice to become European commissioner in Brussels, where he didn't delude our expectations.
At Palazzo Chigi [the seat of the Italian government], who let you down?
Things got off to a good start at Palazzo Chigi. There was a continuity of policy regarding the budget and measures that my government had taken in agreement with the European Council, as stated in the letter pledging our commitment to such reforms by the Oct. 26, 2011, deadline, approved by the Council the very same evening it was sent. I would like to remind you that during the crisis, my government safeguarded the state's accounts by launching budget measures for a total of 265 billion, compared to the 60 in Monti’s 'Save-Italy' budget, so that we could have a balanced budget in 2013 as the European Central Bank had asked and in advance of earlier expectations. I even remember having said no on Nov. 4, 2011, at the Cannes G-20, to putting Italy under a troika program.
So in what does your idea and Monti’s not coincide?
Unfortunately, when austerity needed to go hand in hand with growth, Monti’s government was bogged down by the conditions of the left: the vetoes of the Democratic Party on labor market reform interrupted the reformatory measures. Professor Monti chose raising taxes to restarting the production and consumption motor. We were highly, and rightly, critical of these exclusively recessionary policies. We want more courageous actions. Giving him our confidence votes and the support we have given him to date in the Parliament demonstrate the loyalty, seriousness and coherence with which we have honored the 'patriotic' decision to resign last November. Without wavering from spending rigor and the objective of a balanced budget, the time has come for the Monti government to step up the pace on economic policy and concentrate on growth.
What would you have done differently if you had been at the helm?
First of all I would not have increased fiscal pressure. And I would not have imposed the 1000€ limit on cash payments. Citizens feel as though they are prisoners of a financial police state that controls with a vengeance all payments, money spent, and therefore the general state of well-being.
You promised that if you win the next elections that you would abolish the Imu [real estate tax]. Do you also have an idea how you will finance this measure, since the problem is economic?
The Imu is applied to both first and second homes and is divided between the central state and local administrations, so it is essentially a wealth tax if we take re-evaluation of calculated real estate values [cadastral values for taxation purposes only] into consideration. We propose the abolition of the Imu on the first home. It is an intolerable tax for Italians, who, unlike the vast majority of Europeans, are 80 percent homeowners. The Imu could be considered a one-time tax to face the current emergency -- first aid that should change the Imu into a federal tax only on second homes. The gap in revenue could be recouped by attacking head on the national debt for 400 billion euros, a proposal made by my party, the PDL [People for Freedom], and published in the Sole24Ore.
Can you give me a concrete example of how you would cover the Imu?
A stipulation of fiscal conventions with Switzerland based on the model already in place between Switzerland and Germany and the United Kingdom could already cover more than twice the revenue yield that the gap from the Imu on the first home would cause in a year. We ought to concentrate on reducing waste and reducing the public debt, relaunching consumption and therefore the job market, rather than increasing fiscal pressure on home ownership, a pillar on which every family has the right to base its security for the future, instead of depressing the real estate market and making everyone poorer.
And in Europe?
I would have been less in line with Germany than Monti, because their hegemony dictates the rule of austerity and rigor to the other European states by using the pretext that austerity leads to debt reduction. This is an illusion: public debt diminishes when GDP increases, which means development and growth.
Prime Minister, don’t you think that what you say about Monti, your criticism of European policy is precisely the reason why chancelleries across Europe are worried about Italy post-Monti? I mean, with your program, if there is already a program, is the euro more or less secure?
European chancelleries are worried about the fragmented Italian political framework and the institutional architecture that impedes any government from doing what it was elected to do, make decisions, and not about me or what I say. Which is why I never tire of insisting on the need to reform the institutional architecture of the state. Regarding the euro, I have clearly stated, and I repeat, that errors were committed both in its introduction and in the exchange rate vis-à-vis the dollar, but that today an exit from the eurozone would be very difficult.
Once and for all let’s be clear: do you want Italy in or out of the euro? What are the scenarios?
There are three possibilities. The first: convince Germany that we cannot go forward only with austerity. The second: that Germany exits the euro, a hypothesis that is not science fiction since German banks have evaluated the ramifications of an exit from the euro. And third: that the other countries leave the eurozone, which would mean the end of a common currency and the scrapping of Europe.
Which of these hypotheses do you prefer?
The first: convince Germany.
So how do you get out of this situation?
The problem is reforming the European Union and giving the ECB the prerogatives of an authentic central bank, including the role of guarantor of the sovereign debt of all the states that have transferred up their right to print currency to the European Union and through it to the ECB, opening up the risk of default on their sovereign debt. Remember, Japan’s national debt is 238 percent of GDP; nonetheless their sovereign debt is financed by bonds at 1 percent interest because Japan has a real central bank that prints currency.
Okay, you have talked about 'recession.' And you have criticized the fiscal compact as blocking growth. It is the same fiscal compact that your government negotiated and that was voted for by the PDL. Why are you criticizing it now? Has something changed? You know how delicate the question is for the Monti government that you support: is your criticism a request for the government to change its position or is it an abstract analysis?
As head of government I carried out a solitary battle in Brussels on the fiscal compact because France was perfectly aligned with Germany’s pro-rigor position. I even vetoed the initial project and blocked the subsequent debate obtaining a calculation of so-called relevant factors in the fiscal compact, which would be the objective elements in favor of the Italian economy (like the private savings of families and businesses, and the solidity of the banking system). And then our total GDP has to be calculated, adding GDP from the unofficial economy to official GDP so as to bring in at under 100 percent the percentage of our debt to GDP. We voted for the fiscal compact in Parliament out of a sense of responsibility, but also on the basis of a voting schedule that recalled the regulations promoted by Italy in Europe, regulations that made it necessary to take the relevant factors, which I mentioned earlier into account and for which I personally fought for in Brussels. So you see, this clear position that we have taken must be defended in Europe.
Let’s recount. Monti said that a recessive period was needed in order to put the country back on a healthy path. Wasn’t the need to avoid a recession the justification behind the request that you resign last November?
No. The reason why I took a step backwards was political. It was a gesture of responsibility towards the country. My government, and me personally, had long been the object of a cumbersome media-judicial campaign, as well as the subject of speculation, internal and international. Today it is quite obvious that the increase in the spread was not tied to me or to the measures that my government was undertaking. The spread remained high even months after Monti had taken the helm, it got to 536 basis points on the 24th of July, and let up only when Mario Draghi declared the ECB's willingness to do what was needed to come to the assistance of debtor countries by buying the state-issued bonds of those countries in difficulty. I am proud of having been a determining factor, as head of government, in Draghi’s nomination to the ECB. The recession is another issue. I have already explained that Monti’s government has always had to make decisions while Europe held a loaded gun against it. The result is clear to all: a recession. Some on the left had even held that my resignation would have brought the spread down by 300 basis points ...
What happened instead?
Everyone understood that the spread was nothing other than bonus on the risk that investors believe they are running by buying bonds from a state that cannot print its own currency anymore, thus exposing its own sovereign debt to default.
This brings us to a reconstruction of what has happened. Over the past months you have loyally supported Monti’s government. What I am asking you is: in some circumstances and facing certain questions, did you ever say to yourself, 'I might just as well have stayed in office?'
Maybe. But our governments were always coalition governments, since we never convinced the Italian electorate to give us 51 percent of the seats in Parliament. This slowed down, complicated and sometimes impeded decision making at every turn. Some of my allies’ personal ambitions led them to sabotage single measures and to disassociate themselves from others, making it impossible to have the necessary numbers in Parliament to carry out these very same measures. Nonetheless, our governments managed to approve more than 40 reforms over the years and we were able to hold firm on budget requirements without having to dip our hands into the tax payers’ pockets.
Mr. Prime Minister, you are a man who has always cared a lot about what history would say about you. Today, almost a year since the installment of the Monti government, what adjective would you use to describe your withdrawal from Palazzo Chigi?
Responsible. A responsible choice because I never lost a vote of no confidence, and even though I knew that the high level of the spread was not my government’s fault [which the facts later supported] and although I still had the majority in both the House and the Senate. I believed that in that specific moment the only opportune decision was to take a step back and permit the installation of a technical government, which would have the support of both the majority and the opposition.
Monti’s ministers are recognized as being both credible and competent. Would you have wanted at least one or two of them in your government? If yes, who?
Many of Monti’s ministers are people at the apices of their professions or in the public administration and they had also worked with our governments. For example, the Minister of the Economy, Mr. Vittorio Grilli, often was by my side during the various battles we carried forward to defend Italian interests during the European Council meetings.
Regarding these 'technician ministers,' do you see a change in some of them; let’s say a transformation from 'technicians' into 'politicians' as the elections come close?
The distinction between technician and politician is very ephemeral. The moment they were sworn in these technicians became political protagonists. Many of them already had quite a lot of professional experience side by side of politics and in support of policy making. I consider myself a technician on loan to the world of politics, because the technicians are not only university professors, but rather and above all, technicians are those who have successfully gained competence in the field. What's important is to avoid being a professional politician, but instead to be able to bring prior experience and success to the political experience: entrepreneurship, teaching, professional, administrative ... politics at its highest is service, placing one’s own competence, energy and enthusiasm at the service of the national community.
But politics is also power ...
No, it’s not just power or the struggle for power. Also because the Italian Constitution confers no power whatsoever to those who govern.
Prime Minister Monti has sent some signals to the center-right. He made some positive comments about Forza Italia during a European Popular Party [EPP] workshop in Fiesole, where he said that he was culturally closet to the EPP, and where he was very critical of the labor statute. Is it a mistake to say he might be the moderate’s perfect candidate, or as you yourself say, of all the Italians who want an alternative to the Left?
There’s no mistake, but in order to be a candidate you have to want to be one. Let’s wait and see.
Let’s talk about the upcoming elections. At the moment you seem to be hesitant about declaring whether or not you’ll be a candidate, understandably so. And you have tied your decision to the new electoral law. Taking into account all the defects in the current two-pole electoral system, do you think that the possibility to choose between two different options is worth preserving? In other words: on election night should Italians know who will be leading them from Palazzo Chigi?
I continue to defend the two-pole electoral system. Heaven forbid we go back to the First Republic, where deals determining who would govern were made in secret after the vote.
At the root of everything is the role you have played since you entered politics. You have always said you decided to enter politics with a very strong idea regarding what your role would be. First you wanted to save Italy from a communist government in 1994, then later, from 2001 on, you presented yourself as the champion of economic freedom and individual freedom. What would another candidacy be in defense of? From what dragon would your Saint George be saving Italy?
The legend of Saint George and the dragon dates back to the crusades. The time for crusades and legends is long gone. We are facing concrete problems and concrete dangers. First of all is that Italy finds itself back in the hands of the old communist nomenclature, which waited three years after the Berlin Wall fell before it changed its name. Even the Russians gave up communism before our various Mr. Occhetto, Mr. D'Alema, Mr. Bersani, Mr. Fassino and Mr. Veltroni.
Are there still communists in Italy?
There are still political parties in Italy which define themselves as communist. But more importantly, Italy must not end up in the hands of political subjects who have nothing in common. I myself had problems with my allies, and we started from the same basic premises that seemed solid. What future would the country have in the hands of a motley assembly that encompasses Mr. Vendola, Mr. Casini, Mr. Bersani, Ms. Bindi and Mr. Di Pietro?
Would you be willing to participate in party primaries against other candidates?
I have never held back from putting myself on the line and taking part in competition against others.
Are you willing to support a candidate who is not called Silvio Berlusconi in the building a new center-right?
Absolutely! With all my heart.
How much does the fear of what you call 'judicial fury' have to do with your hesitancy to declare your candidacy?
No fear. I have always found fair judges, and I have never been condemned even though I have been the subject of a judicial fierceness without equal, and which has interfered with the path of history in Italy. In 1994 a notification of an impending investigation was published in the nation’s principal newspaper and provoked, together with the intervention of Mr. Scalfaro [the President of the Republic], a crisis with my Northern League allies which led to the government’s fall, putting the much needed reforms on hold. All this was the result of an accusation for which years later, too late, I was found not guilty. But judicial interference has never kept me from, and never will keep me from doing what I feel is my duty, in the interests of the country I love.
Mr. Prime Minister, regarding the center-right, let’s draw some conclusions on another experiment, the Popolo della Libertà [PDL, Freedom Party]. There is one salient aspect over the years: the distance between the diverse political cultures that comprise the party has remained intact. What I mean to say is that Forza Italia included ex-Christian Democrats, ex-Socialists, ex-everything and ex-nothing, meaning men and women who were new to the political experience, but the party seemed like it was cohesive; the PDL -- just look at the varying positions on Monti's government ... [it] does not seem to have amalgamated very well. Do you still think that it’s the median through which your ideas can be channeled?
This is the destiny of all big political parties and it is also their wealth. For example, it’s what happens to the Democrats and the Republicans in the U.S. It happened to the Christian Democrat Party that had guaranteed our economic rebirth within a system of democracy and freedom following WWII. And that’s what happened to Forza Italia too following '94 when it kept the Communist Party from winning the elections, thus keeping the country from falling into the hands of anti-liberal, left-wing forces. Thus said, a liberal concept means that ideas keep moving forward, not through parties, but thanks to leaders who have a dose of charisma and credibility.
I have the feeling that the electoral playing field for the 2013 elections is still in the construction phase. And I think that you want to work on something new. You have frequently expressed your personal sympathies toward Matteo Renzi, and who knows if this has been a godsend for him or the kiss of death. My question is: if Matteo Renzi were to announce his candidacy as prime minister, un-aligned with the Democratic Party and with his own program, would you support him, or at least be tempted to?
On Renzi and his political program I limited my observations to the fact that it would be good for Italy if two cultures and two opposing sides both based on democratic and European inspiration could have and open political confrontation: one Social-Democratic and the other Popular. As long as the Democratic Party is run by ex-Communists, this is not possible.
Matteo Renzi is pummeling the center-left. What about Beppe Grillo? His popularity affects the center-left most of all, or is he making incursions into your and your party's popularity? Would the term “fascist” be appropriate for Beppe Grillo?
Mr. Grillo is an actor and a brilliant comedian who has been able to exploit all the possibilities the Web offers, who by keeping scrupulously to his script has been able to ride the wave of the legitimate protest against the degeneration of a certain political caste founded on incompetence and privilege.
Does Grillo frighten you or not?
No, he doesn’t. Because he hasn’t proposed anything constructive, and most of all he really would not be able to govern. What Italy doesn’t need right now is a leap into the unknown; it needs expert and capable leadership. The fact that the candidates of the Grillo movement do not want to appear in public, they do not want public confrontation. The movement includes young people animated by the sincere will to commit to civil office, and this is a good thing. They need to be respected. But they have little in common with Beppe Grillo, who remains an extraordinary stage actor who, over the course of his life, can lay claim to theatrical success.
Let’s go back a moment, Mr. Prime Minister. Let’s put it this way, without any minced words. The current political situation is the result of the crisis in your majority. We know, because you have clarified the point repeatedly, what responsibilities you attribute to Gianfranco Fini. With hindsight, are you sorry you didn’t insist on early elections when that was still an option?
Gianfranco Fini bears the responsibility for a betrayal that weakened a majority and a government that had a valid program to renew Italy, and added the potpourri in the Parliament by founding yet another mini-party, thus flaming the embers of the anti-political sentiment. If I had resigned at that time it would have been bad for the country. I believed that the people had expressed their right to a government through the ballot box and that that government ought to bring its mandate to a natural conclusion. Then we all know what happened.
Over the years I’ve worked on the idea that while Gianfranco Fini weakened you numerically, politically the page on the harm done to you by Giulio Tremonti still needs to be written. I recall that before the G20 at Cannes, in a turbulent face-to-face, Mr. Tremonti told you that as long as you remained at Palazzo Chigi it would be impossible to reassure the markets: “You’re the problem” is the infamous sentence. Would you have changed the economics minister if you could have? And if Giulio Tremonti creates his own political/electoral list, would you like to see it allied with the PDL?
I never heard that sentence. I was the one who wanted Giulio Tremonti in my government as my economics minister two times and I have always trusted him. If he wants to be our ally we'll welcome him with open arms. But Tremonti notwithstanding, Italy’s problem is that the head of government has no real powers. He can’t change his ministers, he can’t independently put through immediately efficacious law decrees, and his only tool is the bill that has to make its way through the various parliamentary stages that can take up to 550-600 days. After which the bill is unrecognizable. And if the measure is unwelcome in whole or in part to the left, to a magistrate or to the politically active Magistratura Democratica, it will be challenged on legal grounds and brought before the Constitutional Court, which, being made up of 11 members nominated by the center-left and only four nominated by the center-right, abrogates the law or the parts of the law that are being challenged. If we want Italy to work, this system has to be changed through Constitutional Reform.
Let’s go back to the future. You said that you thought that Matteo Renzi was 'simpatico,' because in him you see a series of novelties that politics will have to face. More precisely, Matteo Renzi is calling for the resignation of the current leadership in the Democratic Party and for a two-term ceiling on parliamentary mandates. Are you ready to accept these two requests for the PDL?
Sometimes even Matteo Renzi has his shortcomings. I believe that citizens must have the freedom to choose their candidates for Parliament. The two-term ceiling makes sense for certain executive levels. For example, the president of the United States. As per the current leadership of the Democratic Party, renewal is absolutely auspicial.
What about the PDL? Is renewal needed?
Of course new personalities are needed, but being young is not always enough. You needed to be young and capable, young and professional. The only thing that really needs to be avoided is being a political professional, one of those people who has been in the Parliament for 30 years and whose faces the general public can’t bear to see on television anymore. I would like to see younger faces on television.
One last question, Mr. President. Right or wrong, your private life has provided the battleground for a civil war. On the private sphere you, as everyone else, have to right to respect. On the political side of the private, the question is: with hindsight would you do it all again, singing 'My Way?'
My behavior has always been correct, in private and in public. Everything else is disinformation and defamation. The use of the judicial system to eliminate a political adversary is a serious pathology affecting our democracy.