The news out of Rome:
“Silvio Berlusconi has salvaged a compromise agreement on economic reforms with his coalition partners that commentators said lacks specifics and risks falling short of what eurozone leaders have demanded ahead of Wednesday’s summit in Brussels.” (http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/5945e250-ffba-11e0-89ce-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1bjQzVRpl)
The crucial point…the plan “lacks specifics and risks falling short”…
Prime minister Berlusconi and the head of his coalition partner, the Northern League, Umberto Bossi, negotiated the new compromise package to submit to other eurozone leaders. Other than reaching some kind of agreement, the alternative is for Mr. Berlusconi to resign.
The prospects do not seem to be encouraging:
“Newspaper editorials on Wednesday said Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Bossi may have staved off a collapse of their coalition for the time being, but at the risk of undermining a critical summit and failing to deliver the reforms Italy needs to lift an economy on the edge of a renewed recession.”
Mr. Bossi is not a fan of the European arrangement…a euro-skeptic. Hence, his tradeoffs are substantially different from those of Berlusconi. And, Mr. Berlusconi does not have much personal credibility…and little or no moral stature…to trade on.
In fact, Beppe Severginini in a Financial Post op-ed piece goes even further:
“How can the world’s eighth largest economy go on with a delusional prime minister, a weak government, an impotent opposition and its finances in disarray?” (http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/c78b1142-fe6e-11e0-bac4-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1bjQzVRpl)
How did someone like Berlusconi become prime minister in the first place? Well, as one person commentated on my earlier post this week, Mr. Berlusconi became prime minister of Italy because everyone else running for the position was worse than he was. Encouraging…
So where does that leave Europe?
Mr. Sarkozy and Ms. Merkel appeared to be applying the pressure to Mr. Berlusconi over the weekend. This precipitated the efforts of the past two days.
If the reports of the reform plan concocted by Berlusconi and his coalition are true and the plan really does fall short of what is necessary, the question becomes, will Sarkozy and Merkel “stick to their guns” and hold Italy’s “feet to the fire”? Or, will the French and German officials back off and attempt to get by with something less than they stated was necessary.
The crucial thing here, to me, is that the pressure on Italy was applied because several eurozone officials believed that the problems they faced were deep enough that an attempt needed to be made to “encircle” the major problems and not just work on individual nations on a case-by-case basis. (See my post “Italy is the Key to Solving the Euro Debt Crisis”, http://seekingalpha.com/article/301607-italy-is-the-key-to-solving-the-euro-debt-crisis.) Whereas in the past, the European Union began with the smallest, weakest link in the chain and then moved up to the next, larger, crisis, the current move was to include the third largest economy in the EU along with the weakest, Greece, and this, then, would include all that was in-between, like Spain and Portugal.
Now, this may not be achieved. We wait to see how Mr. Sarkozy and Ms. Merkel respond to the new Italian proposal.
But, this is not all. The banking situation in Europe still lingers. (http://seekingalpha.com/article/301369-europeans-facing-more-of-a-haircut-than-preciously-thought) European banks are balking over the proposed debt “haircuts” and the new proposed capital requirements.
It would seem that if Sarkozy and Merkel “back off” any on the Italy effort, given the pressure put on Italy over the weekend, that the banks will smell the weakness and put up even more resistance to the effort to write down the debt issues under consideration as far as needed.
This, of course, puts the eurozone in a more tenuous position because lack of cooperation by the banks on the write-downs has implications that relate to a “triggering event” which might set off “bankruptcy” questions leading to payoffs on Credit Default Swaps. The possibility of this occurring raises the specter of contagion in the financial sector, ala’ the Lehman Brothers affair, something eurozone officials sincerely want to avoid.
It seems as if European officials are running out of choices. Yet, as we have seen in the past, European officials are masters of the art of squirming out of difficult spots and postponing solutions for another time.
The betting still seems to be on the conclusion that no real leaders will arise in Europe to resolve the problems that Europe faces. We can only hope for a better outcome.