Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti fears “backlash” stemming from “mutual resentments” between Northern and Southern Europeans spurred by the financial crisis.
Appearing on the PBS NewsHour, Monti declared, “I try to avoid that backlash by always presenting the necessary sacrifices that Italians have to go through not as an imposition from Brussels or Germany or the European Central Bank, but rather as a necessary step that Italians have to undertaking — to undertake also at the suggestion of Europe, but basically for their own interests, for the interests of ourselves and of future generations of Italians.”
While allowing that “This is precisely meant to avoid backlashes,” he worries that “the euro zone crisis has indeed brought about quite a bit of misunderstandings and the re-emergence of old phantoms about prejudices between the North, the South of Europe, and a lot of mutual resentment.”
Taking this to its logical conclusion, he observed, “And it is very, very important that we all take this with great attention in order to avoid that something that was meant to be the culminating point of the European construction — namely, the single currency — turns out to be, through psychological negative effects, a factor of disintegration of Europe.”
While the populist sentiments along these lines–particularly in Germany, Greece, and Italy–have been obvious from even a casual reading of the newspapers over the last two or three years, it’s a subject that national leaders have until now avoided talking about publicly. Whether his candor is a function of his long career as an academic or the fact that he was appointed to his position and doesn’t have to be overly concerned about electoral consequences, it’s a discussion worth having.
Further, he’s right: allowing these resentments to fester puts not just the common currency but the European project as a whole in jeopardy.
That said, there are rather fundamental cultural and structural differences between North and South that have to be dealt with honestly as well.
NewsHour’s Margaret Warner asked him, “Do you think that by calling for more competition in the economy, as well as budget cuts, you are asking the Italian people to really change their central character or culture?”
Again, speaking more like a doctor of philosophy than a prime minister, he answered honestly and insightfully. But he’s been in politics long enough to toss in some pandering, too: “To some extent, yes. I am fully aware of this, and basically our mission and my wish is to have the Italian people value more and more some strong qualities they have in their genes and traditions — that is, a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a sense of — and a sense of solidarity in society.” He added, “But I definitely think that Italy can become a more competitive place only if we introduce in our system much more meritocracy, which means much more competition and accountability in all decision points of corporate, as well as the public administration.”
The juxtaposition of these issues presents an enormous political challenge. On the one hand, “Europe” will remain a fantasy so long as differences in cultures which have existed independently for centuries can not be accommodated. On the other, the common currency and deeper political integration can not work if Europeans don’t all play by the same basic sets of rules.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.