Can Monti ring in the changes needed?

WITH the eurozone close to the cliff’s edge, elected politicians are giving way to the technocrats, or else being forced to kowtow to them.

Along the continent’s soft southern underbelly, unelected experts are occupying cabinet positions in droves, raising a storm of criticism among those now questioning the whole European project.

Central banker Lucas Papademos, a member of the ECB governing council up until the past couple of weeks, has accepted the ultimate poisoned chalice as caretaker prime minister of Greece following the rapid departure of the hapless George Papandreou.

Next door, in Italy, an altogether more seismic event occurred with the departure, amid popular celebration, of Silvio Berlusconi, the frolicking media magnate who has been the dominant political player of the past decade and a half.

Berlusconi’s successor, Mario Monti, could hardly be more different as a personality and in the way he has wielded power.

Berlusconi is a stocky onetime crooner, complete with facelift, dyed hair and a penchant for women a fraction of his age. As a politician, he played well with ordinary folk, helped by ownership of much of the country’s media — at least until the economic crisis and personal scandal finally caught up with him.

Monti is a tall, lean university professor who attended Mass on his way to meet with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano. Born in prosperous Lombardy, in Northern Italy, he earned a degree in economic management at Bocconi University in Milan. He has served as university president since 1994 — ironically, Milan is also the base of the Berlusconi empire and it was Berlusconi who propelled him to the centre of the European stage when he appointed him to the European Commission in 1995.

He took, first, the internal market portfolio (later occupied by Charlie McCreevy) and from 1999, the key job of competition commissioner.

Whereas Silvio was a leader for the boom times, Mario is a clean living character, is more in tune with these times of austerity.

The professor has a pretty steely edge, one that he will need given the awesome challenges that lie ahead.

Monti is remembered as the man who saw off both Jack Welch of General Electric, and Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer of Microsoft.

He succeeded in blocking GE’s planned takeover of Honeywell, but his action against Microsoft for abuse of its dominant position culminated in a fine of almost €500m by Monti, exercising the quasi judicial functions of a competition commissioner.

The fine was confirmed in 2007 by the Court of First Instance at the European Court of Justice. In Monti’s view, Microsoft had abused its dominant position in order to extend its dominance in the server market.

Monti made good connections in Brussels and since quitting the Commission in 2004 he has joined prestigious bodies, including the Trilateral Commission group of the great and the good, founded by business magnate David Rockefeller. He became its European chairman.

Last year he was selected by the EC president Jose Manuel Barroso to write a report on how best to re-inject momentum into the largely stalled European internal market project. Monti concluded that in many areas blockages to proper market integration still exist.

He is a prominent member of the Spinelli group which aims to restore impetus to European federalism.

More controversially, he is one of a large number of statesmen to be hired by the investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Critics claim that Goldman Sachs has far too much power over US and European leaders — certainly, the bank has been remarkably successful when it comes to placing its people in high places and in picking up dignitaries once they have departed government.

Other Goldman ‘graduates’ include Peter Sutherland, former chairman of Goldman Sachs International and the new head of the ECB, Mario Draghi, another Italian.

The big question is whether Monti’s appointment has come too late. It could be that he will end up presiding over Italy’s departure from the eurozone, assuming the euro even survives.

Leading commentator Martin Wolf warns of conflagration, and countering the argument of those who cavil at the appointment of unelected technocrats to top posts in Greece and Italy, he believes that Papademos and Monti are their countries’ last hopes.

Wolf warns that while failure in Greece — now seen as almost inevitable — would be a nuisance, an enforced bailout of Italy would be devastating.

In a very real sense, Mario Monti has been sent in to defuse a fiscal bomb, one that could blow the whole eurozone apart.

Monti has just 18 months to make his mark before elections due in the spring of 2013. He has appointed a cabinet of experts, including the head of Italy’s second largest bank — this is a country where bankers are still respected.

Monti must resist the charge that he is simply serving the interests of his Goldman Sachs friends.

And all the time, the financial sharks circle.

The professor will need to master his brand new political brief fast if he is not to become one of those footnotes that fellow academics love to peruse, in the process moving us all onto unimagined terrain.

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