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The Danger of Success
Ironically, the more successful Monti becomes, the more trouble he might face. The country's politicians have backed him only because of the economic crisis, so the more reforms he implements, and the further Italy pulls back from the brink, the less incentive they have to support him. As austerity measures begin to hurt, his popularity could also begin to evaporate. That potentially leaves Monti with a very narrow window of opportunity to implement change. In theory, he will remain Prime Minister until the next election, in the spring of 2013 barely enough time to fulfill his agenda but he could find that window closing long before then. "The point is how to keep this pressure [to reform] even once the most visible elements of emergency hopefully are over," Monti says.
He could use a bit more help from the rest of Europe. For Monti, the future of Italy and the future of Europe are intrinsically connected. He has always been a passionate advocate of European integration and has consistently pressed for more of it. "Among the E.U.'s big member states, he is the leader who is most European in his thinking," says Jean Pisani-Ferry, director of the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, which Monti helped found in 2005.
His stance has at times put him at odds with other European leaders. In an influential 2010 report, Monti scolded the members of the E.U. for stifling the region's growth potential by preventing the emergence of a true single market with too many remaining national barriers to cross-border business. To quell the debt crisis, he advocates deeper European integration than many of his counterparts are willing to accept. In his TIME interview, Monti expressed gratitude for the support given to him by the rest of Europe but lamented that faster euro-zone reform might have blunted some of the worst effects of the crisis. An unwillingness to devote sufficient resources to expand the zone's bailout fund, for example, has hampered the creation of a so-called firewall to protect Italy and other struggling countries from contagion. Monti also favors the introduction of Eurobonds, which would be backed by all euro-zone governments, though other European leaders have been fiercely opposed to the idea. However, the bickering that has stymied such action, he believes, may finally be coming to a close. "I think there is a genuine wish on the part of the E.U. and Germany and France to again play an active game with Italy for a relaunch of European integration," he says. "I think we will be seeing an acceleration of the good news."
He's seeking more good news in the U.S. On Feb. 9, Monti has a high-profile summit with President Obama, then he is off to New York City for meetings with the American financial community. To solve Italy's debt crisis, Monti needs to sell his agenda abroad as doggedly as at home. If he can convince global investors that Italy is truly reforming and is a safe place for their money, he will alleviate any fears of an Italian default. "One of the key purposes of this visit would be to further try to explain to the President and to the financial community what we are trying to achieve," Monti says.
That accomplishment alone would solidify Monti's status as the man who's saving Europe. Italy's problems, though, run so deep that reform will need to continue long after he exits the scene. Monti hopes his administration can act as an example for his successors of the magical benefits of the spirit of compromise. "Others will come," Monti says, and they will sense that public opinion no longer tolerates daily political conflicts whose objective is "to destroy your adversary and not to save the country." Italy and the entire global economy can only hope that is true.
with reporting by Stephan Faris / Rome; Leo Cendrowicz / Brussels; and Milena Vercellino / Milan