It was German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble who allegedly fired the first shot. In an interview with the Italian newsmagazine l'Espresso late last week, Schäuble warned Italians against voting for Silvio Berlusconi in general elections scheduled for Feb. 24 and 25. "Silvio Berlusconi may be an effective campaign strategist," the magazine quotes Schäuble as saying. "But my advice to the Italians is not to make the same mistake again by re-electing him."
A Finance Ministry spokesman was quick to deny that Schäuble had said such a thing. But this week, given Berlusconi's seemingly inexorable climb toward the top of Italian public opinion polls, two more top German politicians have warned against re-electing a man who many see as being partially responsible for the economic troubles facing the country.
"We are of course not a party in the Italian campaign," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told the center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung in comments printed on Tuesday. "But whoever ends up forming the next government, we are emphatic that (Rome's) pro-European path and necessary reforms are continued."
Given Berlusconi's fiscally irresponsible campaign promises combined with his anti-European rhetoric, it isn't difficult to guess who Westerwelle's verbal darts were aimed at. But just to be sure the message was clear, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in German parliament, Ruprecht Polenz, also spoke up. Polenz, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, said: "Italy needs political leaders who stand for the future. Berlusconi is certainly not one of them."
The anxiety apparent in the comments is the result of Berlusconi's astounding rise from political afterthought last autumn to a genuine threat to win a fourth term as Italian prime minister. The last pre-election polls, which are published two weeks before Italians cast their ballots, showed Berlusconi's coalition to be just five percentage points behind the center-left bloc led by Pier Luigi Bersani.
A Berlusconi victory, many fear, could result in an immediate rise in Italian borrowing costs and a return to the critical situation in which Rome found itself in late 2011, when Berlusconi was essentially forced to step down in favor of the technocratic government led by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti. Indeed, markets have been showing unmistakable jitters as the vote approaches.
One Italian bank even went so far this week as to issue a report arguing that a Berlusconi election would almost certainly force the country to apply for emergency bailout aid from the EU. Mediobanca, Italy's largest investment bank, wrote that "a last-minute Berlusconi victory would scare the market sufficiently to put pressure on the spread." Ironically, given Italy's current sovereign debt load, the bank sees such an eventuality as "the best case" because it would "offer Italy the perfect excuse for what we keep seeing as the only viable way out."
'East German Bureaucrat'
That, not surprisingly, is an experiment that Berlin would prefer to avoid. Unnamed Foreign Ministry sources told the Süddeutsche that Westerwelle is following the Italian campaign closely and sees the country as a "key to surmounting the European debt crisis."
Polenz, for his part, sees Berlusconi as lacking the necessary trustworthiness. "It has to do with confidence and credibility," he said. "The ongoing court proceedings directed against Berlusconi have a negative effect on his political credibility."
And Chancellor Merkel? She has so far remained silent on the Italian campaign. But her antipathy for Berlusconi is not something she goes out of her way to hide. In a much cited press conference with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the fall of 2011, she merely chuckled when asked about Berlusconi's willingness to push through reforms.
His recent campaign will not have changed her mind. "Il Cavaliere," as Berlusconi is known, has made attacks on Merkel a central feature of his campaign and he has sought to paint Monti as being a pawn of Berlin. Just this week, Berlusconi called Merkel an "Eastern bureaucrat," a reference to her having grown up in communist East Germany. That, of course, can be regarded as a compliment in comparison with some of the things he has said about the German leader in the past.