The annoyance was unmistakable. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy this week for their "inappropriate and objectionable public comments" and lamented the "weak trust" Italy's international partners had in Rome.
He was referring to a Sunday press conference in which both Merkel and Sarkozy appeared to smirk, or even snicker, when asked if they still had faith in the leadership of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. During the appearance, the two also demanded that Berlusconi come to Wednesday's summit with a proposal for how to reduce his country's imposing mountain of debt.
Given the tone of the Sunday news conference, it would only seem natural that Merkel might apologize to Berlusconi in Brussels on Wednesday. Indeed, Berlusconi said as much to Italian television during a summit intermission. "Ms. Merkel came to me to offer her apologies and to assure me that it was not her intention to insult our country," Berlusconi told the TV station RAI.
That, though, is not how Merkel recalls her exchange of pleasantries with Berlusconi. In an English language message posted on Twitter, Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert wrote: "No apology from the Chancellor because there was nothing to apologize for. Berlusconi + Merkel have good, open talks among friends."
The relationship between Paris and Berlin on the one hand and Rome on the other has been in the spotlight this week as concerns have grown that Italy could be the next euro-zone country to run into problems resulting from its sovereign debt. Italy's debt is worth almost 120 percent of its annual economic output and markets this year have showed signs of losing trust in Italy's ability to shoulder that debt.
Berlusconi, however, had not shown much urgency in passing far-reaching austerity measures to address the problem. A 54 billion ($75 billion) package passed in late summer has been criticized for not being ambitious enough and some have said that a slowing economy could make additional measures necessary. Furthermore, Berlusconi backed away from initial belt-tightening measures only to reintroduce them due to significant market pressure. The back-and-forth led to doubts about his commitment to austerity.
Meanwhile, a pledge this week to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67 likewise appears doubtful, with the Northern League, a vital Berlusconi ally in his center-right coalition government, rejecting the idea. Italian media has even reported that the issue could result in new elections early next year. A Wednesday debate in parliament in Rome over the issue was briefly suspended due to a brief fisticuff between two parliamentarians.
Still, the Italian prime minister arrived in Brussels on Wednesday with a pledge to institute measures aimed at bringing his country's debt down to 113 percent of gross domestic product by 2014, a promise that Merkel called "noteworthy." He also reiterated his plan to up the retirement age to 67, saying the process would be complete by 2026.
Acrimonious Political Atmosphere
"Compared to eight or 10 years ago, the pressure which leaders put on each other has become much more effective, as the events of the last days show," said European Council President Herman Van Rompuy in reference to Italian reform pledges. "Peer pressure has become much more effective because the money of their taxpayers is at stake."
Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Berlusconi will be able to institute his reform proposals without a fight. The country's largest trade union, the CGIL, said on Thursday that it would fight proposals to raise the retirement age and make it easier for companies to hire and fire. "We're ready to propose unified action," CGIL head Susanna Camusso told the daily La Repubblica in an interview. Media commentators also expressed doubt -- with a La Repubblica editorial calling Berlusconi's proposals a "book of dreams" -- given the acrimonious political atmosphere in Rome.
Berlusconi on Thursday made an appeal to the center-left opposition to support the reform package. "We hope the opposition wants to get out of this situation of always saying no and always being against things," he said at a press conference.
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