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Italy's anti-austerity vote provokes unease in Germany

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Germany failed to mask its unease Wednesday over Italy's anti-austerity protest vote that has led to political deadlock, with calls for Italians to stay reform-focused and derisory digs in the media.

Dubbed an "anti-Merkel" result, the German chancellor has refrained from commenting publicly on the Italian elections' outcome but two top-table officials stressed it was paramount for Rome to keep its reform course on track.

Merkel was, however, reported to have dismissed interpreting the Italian vote as a kickback against government austerity measures at a meeting of her conservative party Tuesday, according to participants.

"The government does not adhere at all to such one-dimensional explanations," her spokesman Steffen Seibert told a regular government news conference the following day.

Most outspoken among German politicians has been Merkel's gaffe-prone challenger from the opposition centre-left in this year's general elections, Peer Steinbrueck.

"I am downright appalled that two clowns won," he told a Social Democratic Party event in Potsdam late Tuesday, sparking the Italian president to cancel scheduled talks the next day with him.

He said that while former comedian turned anti-corruption firebrand Beppe Grillo was a "professional clown with nothing against being called that", former premier Silvio Berlusconi was "a clown with a particular testosterone surge".

As Europe's biggest economy and effective paymaster, Merkel championed austerity measures in a bid to beat the eurozone debt crisis that has driven the 17-nation bloc into recession.

Italy's election campaign was marked by opposition to those measures and ended in a stalemate, handing a key role to an anti-austerity party that has ruled out joining a coalition government.

"The politicians in Rome know that Italy still needs a policy of reform, a policy of (budgetary) consolidation," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.

Echoing the message was Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who called on Italian politicians to do what is necessary for the country, "namely (to form) a stable government, which continues the successful course of reforms".

"We're all not exactly pleased but that doesn't help anything, such is democracy," Schaeuble told ZDF public television late Tuesday.

Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, who replaced the scandal-tainted tycoon Berlusconi, ousted at the height of the financial crisis in 2011, was the big election loser.

While it won plaudits abroad, Monti's austerity drive won few fans at home.

Josef Janning, of the German Council on Foreign Relations, said the outcome was a blow for Berlin whose biggest expectation before the election had been that "the outcome will yield a mandate for further reform policy".

Germany's management of the euro crisis would be harder, especially in an election year where politicians are wary of making blunders, and it will not help the country's image in southern Europe, he said.

"Merkel would be well advised to improve her strategic coordination with (French President Francois) Hollande on the basis of this result. That would be the sensible position vis-a-vis the south," Janning told AFP.

With Grillo and Berlusconi's faces painted white with red noses, mass circulation Bild daily asked, "Will these Italian political clowns destroy the euro?"

Under the headline "Against Merkel -- but for what?", Wednesday's Tagesspiegel said "a greater disaffection with the economically and politically strongest EU nation" was evident in Italy.

Italians have "understood nothing", lamented the centre-left Sueddeutsche Zeitung Tuesday while the conservative Die Welt groaned "Poor Italy!"

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130227/italys-anti-austerity-vote-provokes-unease-germany