REUTERS - Italy’s Prime Minister-designate Mario Monti said on Monday his first day of talks for a new government were constructive and he hoped to form an administration that could take the country through to the next scheduled elections in 2013.
“It’s obvious that parliament can decide at any time that a government does not have its confidence,” he told a news conference, but added that he would not accept setting other time limits on the lifetime of the government.
“If a date was set beyond that time horizon, this predetermination would remove credibility from the government,” he said.
The next election is not due until 2013 but there have been widespread predictions Monti will make way for polls once he passes the economic reforms promised to Europe.
The former European Commissioner met representatives of smaller parties on his first day of consultations to form a government replacing Silvio Berlusconi that will try to reverse a disastrous collapse of market confidence in Italy.
He concludes the talks on Tuesday with meetings with leaders of the two largest parties of the centre-right and the centre-left, unions, and representatives of women and youth groups.
Monti said he would be willing to have politicians in his government instead of just technocrats but that it would be up to the political parties to decide.
He went to work after a frenetic weekend of political activity, in which Italy’s parliament approved a package of economic reforms agreed with European leaders, Berlusconi resigned and President Giorgio Napolitano appointed the respected international figure as head of a new government.
“Monti spoke about a significant programme with many sacrifices,” Francesco Nucara, a lawmaker from one of the myriad tiny parliamentary groups involved in the talks, said after meeting the prime minister designate.
The speaker of the lower house, Gianfranco Fini, said he expected Monti to seek a confidence vote in parliament to confirm support for his new government by Friday.
After a tumultuous week, when Italy’s borrowing costs rose to the kind of levels that saw Ireland and Greece forced to seek an international bailout, initial market reaction was positive on Monday, with both stocks and bond markets lifted.
But in a sign of the fragile state of the markets, the trend was reversed after an auction of 5-year bonds forced the Treasury to pay a record yield of 6.29 percent, up nearly a full percentage point from the last auction in mid October.
By the early afternoon, the risk premium on Italian bonds over their benchmark German equivalent was up to 482 basis points, underlining the threat that still hangs over Rome.
Napolitano called for an extraordinary national effort to support Monti and win back the confidence of international markets, noting that Italy had to refinance some 200 billion euros of bonds by the end of April.
But once the initial boost from his appointment has passed, Monti will face a major challenge navigating the treacherous waters of Italian politics with clear signs of mistrust already emerging from the centre right.
Monti, a convinced free marketeer with a record of successfully taking on powerful corporate interests during his decade in Brussels, is expected to outline a policy programme in line with demands made by Italy’s European partners.
“It’s very important that this government takes shape quickly and starts work immediately with fundamental reforms to return to growth and balance the budget,” Emma Marcegaglia, head of the Confindustria business lobby, told reporters.
Monti has spoken frequently of his support for controlling public finances and for pro-market policies such as boosting competition, opening up closed professions and lowering the tax burden on employment.
However pushing though painful reforms such as raising the retirement age for those on so-called full-service or seniority pensions and loosening job protection measures will test the extent of the non-elected government’s support both in parliament and outside.
Other possible measures such as imposing a wealth tax on privately owned assets including first homes also risk strong opposition from the right.
Top European Union officials and German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed signs of an end to the weeks of uncertainty, with Merkel saying the approval of a reform package in parliament on Saturday was “heartening”.
The European Union will continue monitoring measures taken in Rome and Monti will need to secure the support of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Merkel, both of whom were openly exasperated with Berlusconi’s repeated unfulfilled promises of reform.