Berlusconi Threatens Italian Eurozone Exit, Rises in Polls

The former premier’s Euroskeptic rhetoric appears to resonate with Italian voters.

European Council president Herman Van Rompuy talks with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy in Brussels, June 23, 2011
European Council president Herman Van Rompuy talks with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy in Brussels, June 23, 2011 (The Council of the European Union)

Italy’s right-wing leader Silvio Berlusconi threatened to leave the European single currency union on Wednesday unless the European Central Bank pursues a more expansionary monetary policy which northern member states, including Germany, are adamantly opposed to. The former premier seems to hope that his newfound Euroskepticism will enable him to return to government in elections early next year.

In an interview with Italian public broadcaster Rai Uno, Berlusconi said, “Either Germany understands that the ECB must act as a real central bank and therefore print money or unfortunately we will be forced to leave the euro and return to our currency.”

Berlusconi, who was forced to resign the premiership in November of last year when Italy teetered on the brink of sovereign default, previously suggested that it would “not be the end of the world” for either Germany or Italy to leave the eurozone. In an interview with Canale 5 last week, he touted his willingness to stand up to Germany which is seen by many Italians as imposing unnecessarily drastic economic and fiscal reforms on their country. “I was one of the two, three most influential leaders in the European Council,” he said. “I continuously opposed German proposals and demands.”

Unlike incumbent prime minister Mario Monti, according to the Italian right. Berlusconi and other conservative party members have accused the former European commissioner, who took over as premier last November, of toeing the German line of fiscal policy. Monti’s cabinet enacted tough budget and pension reforms to mend the country’s shortfall and stabilize its debt, currently at 126 percent of gross domestic product. He also advocated labor market reforms but had to tone them down under pressure from the left as well as the nation’s powerful trade unions.

Monti relied on the support of Berlusconi’s Il Popolo della Libert√† and the left-wing Partito Democratico in parliament. The former withdrew its support from the government earlier this month, prompting Monti to resign. Elections were expected to be called in February of next year.

The right now wants to postpone the election until the end of February or early March. Even if preeleection polls put it behind the Partito Democratico as well as the Euroskeptic Five State Movement led by comic Beppe Grillo, its popularity is on the rebound. Berlusconi’s anti-German rhetoric seems to resonate with a share of the Italian electorate. His party may be calculating that pushing back the elections will give it ample time to persuade enough voters to give it a plurality of the seats in the next parliament.

Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani still has the best chance of capturing the prime ministership. But it’s possible that Berlusconi’s party, its former coalition partner, the separatist Lega Nord, and the Five Star Movement win a majority between them which would put the three Euroskeptic parties in a position to form a government — even if Grillo is otherwise more left wing and not inclined to prop up another cabinet headed by Berlusconi.