Mario Monti: 'I convinced Thatcher that the Maastricht Treaty was a good idea'

Mario Monti talks to Michael Day in Milan about his admiration for the Iron Lady – and why Italy’s tax evaders should be running scared

For a man who has devoted much of his career working towards a closer Europe, it might come as a surprise to learn that now, as the technocrat prime minister of Italy, Mario Monti, cites of one of the bloc’s fiercest critics as an inspiration.

Speaking to The Independent, Mr Monti hails Margaret Thatcher’s decade-long overhaul of the British economy and the former UK premier’s success in making “profound changes to British society” in her three terms of office.

The softly spoken economist, whose working life has oscillated between high academia (he was taught at Yale by James Tobin who in turn has given his name to the proposed transaction tax) and bureaucracy, was thrust into the limelight late last year when Italy’s parliament finally lost patience with the colourful and controversial Silvio Berlusconi, and selected Mr Monti as an unelected leader. He was charged not with winning votes, but with guiding Italy out of its economic mire.

The change is not just a cosmetic one. Of course, gone are bunga bunga parties – until being appointed PM, Mr Monti’s wife of 40 years, Elsa, used to pick him up from the train station each Friday – but so have the trigger-happy market speculators that threatened to bring Italy to its knees.

But it appears that public office has changed some of Mr Monti’s perspectives. As well as hailing what he sees as Lady Thatcher’s triumphs in Britain – despite their polar opposite views on Europe – he also appears to be getting a taste for his job and insists he would be prepared to take part in the next Italian government if asked to do so by elected politicians.

“What can we do in just 18 months? A little but also a lot,” he said.

Mr Monti is well aware that his official time is ticking away. After being rushed into the job in November last year his term will end next April.

“I’m very keen to make sure that the changes we have already introduced on labour markets and tax evasion remain, and take root – and are not washed away with the first rains,” he said. “The two greatest priorities for my government are tackling tax evasion and corruption. The citizens have to come round to the view that not paying tax is not an option. I have no hesitation in calling it a war on tax evasion.”

It may be easy for an unelected politician to hail more taxes on his public, but raising the subject of graft elicits a rare moment of passion from the phlegmatic premier. Most people would agree that Mr Monti talks more sense that his predecessor, Mr Berlusconi. But he’s certainly less loquacious – particularly when it comes to political forecasting.

“I’m not sure what will happen after April,” he said. “It depends on what the elected politicians do. But I believe that we are seeing a profound change in the public mood.

“I think that the public is much more mature and understands that key changes cannot be avoided.”

Mr Monti has also said he hopes politicians will be able to resume their role of governing the country.

Many pundits think, however, that Mr Monti, or at least one of his lieutenants, such as economic development minister Corrado Passera, will have to be given a key role in the next administration in order to keep the markets happy.

Even Pierluigi Bersani, the left-wing leader of the Democratic Party, has called Mr Monti “a resource for the country”. For his part, Mr Monti, a former European Commissioner, indicated his admiration for the distinctly eurosceptic Lady Thatcher, recalling how he met her in Milan soon after the introduction of 1992’s Maastricht Treaty, which paved the way for monetary union – and the euro.

“She was as direct as always. She said: ‘I can’t understand why it is the Italians get so excited about Maastricht.’ When I explained the benefits of the treaty, she replied: ‘Now I see why they’re so keen. You’re saying it will finally make them do the things they should have been doing all along but didn’t have the will to.’”

“She then said: ‘The British aren’t interested in the Maastricht Treaty because they have me.’”

Unlike Eurosceptic British Conservatives, Mr Monti is still very much a cheerleader for the European Union and reiterates his faith in the single currency, despite the very real threat to its existence from the sovereign debt crisis.

At home, he has adopted the projections of a politician hunting for votes and predicts the moribund Italian economy would finally see growth return by 2013, thanks to structural reforms he is introducing – including “very taboo” changes to the country’s archaic labour laws – and his “war” on tax evasion and graft.

Few people doubt drastic action is needed against corruption, not only to aid the parlous state of Italy’s public finances, but also to restore the electorate’s faith in politicians who will – sooner rather than later - have to replace Mr Monti.

On the tainted state of Italian politics, he said: “The public is indignant. We have to reintroduce trust between the government and the state.”

“We are making progress with the anti-corruption bill. It will include measures to ensure that no one convicted of a serious crime can stand in national or local elections.”

As the eurocrat charged not only with overhauling Italy, but in so doing saving the euro, his thoughts are never far from Europe. He said the euro’s most pressing problem – Spain’s finances, and in particular those of its banks – could be resolved by the extended stability mechanism.

But in order to save the European project, he said the Continent’s leaders would need to adopt “a more political role” to combat rising tensions between EU members.

“It’s becoming almost an obsession of mine,” he said. “Europe has to avoid old prejudices and new ones. That means north versus south, rich versus poor."

This comment might be seen as a veiled criticism of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel; Mr Monti has already called on Germany to be more forgiving in its approach in helping the indebted south of Europe.

On a positive note, ever the European he hailed the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU last Friday: “It would be difficult to disagree that the EU deserved this.”

He could be forgiven for being too busy to read the reactions of some Greek and British newspapers. Would the EU still merit the award if, as some pundits – including Lady Thatcher – have predicted, the euro were to fail, dragging the world economy into a fearful depression?

Even if he’d wanted to, there wasn’t time to answer, because Italy’s Prime Minister was already whizzing off, no doubt aware that the clock was ticking and there was much to do between now and April.

Economic growth: the rise of Monti

1965 Studied economics at the Bocconi University in Milan, and later at Yale under the tutelage of economist James Tobin.

1970 Begins a 15-year spell teaching economics at the University of Turin.

1994 Appointed Italy’s EU commissioner for the internal market.

2010 Asked by EC president Jose Manuel Barroso to draft a “Report on the Future of the Single Market”.

2011 Appointed a lifetime senator by President Giorgio Napolitano. A week later he is asked by the President to form a new technocratic government following the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi.

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