Leave the euro, Silvio Berlusconi tells Italy – then says he was only joking

Alarmed countrymen hear former premier urging ECB to begin printing money to beat debt crisis

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The Independent Online

Demonstrating the sort of political nous that saw him kicked out of office last November, the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has called on Italy to consider withdrawing from the euro – before retracting the comments less than 24 hours later.

The mogul said on his Facebook page on Friday that Italy should quit the single currency unless the European Central Bank (ECB) began printing money to beat the debt crisis and revive Europe's stagnant economy.

"The economic crisis can't be solved. We have to go to Europe and say forcefully that the ECB should start printing money," he wrote. "If it doesn't, we should have the strength to say 'ciao, ciao' and leave the euro." But the next day Mr Berlusconi made a swift reversal, claiming that his comments, which were at odds with government policy, were merely in jest.

"That a joke... could be mistaken for a proposal is certainly a serious error for those claiming to provide political news," Mr Berlusconi wrote on Saturday on his Facebook page. He said the press had taken seriously what he had said "with a smile and irony". The 75-year-old tycoon has a history of making on-the-hoof policy statements and tasteless gaffes, only to rescind them or attempt to pass them off as ironic.

Most spectacularly, after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the then-PM said world leaders were considering closing international markets to "rewrite the rules of international finance". Within an hour, with markets in free fall, he denied the comments, saying they were merely false rumours he had "heard on the radio".

The latest retraction comes amid signs that the three-time premier may be missing the spotlight after leaving office. He was also alarmed by the feeble showing of his PDL party in last month's local elections that suggested the centre-right grouping would be decimated in the general election due in a year's time. As his political power wanes, the media mogul has indicated that he fancies a shot at being head of state.

Last month he for called for constitutional changes that would allow the post of state president to be elected by the public. If that came about, he told journalists, he would selflessly consider standing.

But while the Italian press yesterday mocked Mr Berlusconi's latest faux pas, some commentators noted that the ex-premier's comments on the euro underlined the growing feeling in Europe's more indebted nations that the ECB – and by extension Germany – would have to sanction the use of the eurozone's weapon of last resort against the markets, namely the ability to print money.

Italy's current Prime Minister, Mario Monti, has said he believes the euro will endure. But he too, has stepped up the pressure on the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to use the ECB more aggressively and put aside fears of inflation.