"Super Mario" tapped to fix Italy's economy
Newly nominated Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti speaks to the press after being appointed by the President, Nov. 13, 2011 at the Quirinale, the presidential palace, in Rome. / VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images
MILAN - The man tapped to be Italy's next premier earned the moniker "Super Mario" in the halls of the European Commission, stopping such corporate giants as Jack Welch and Bill Gates in their competitive tracks.
Elegantly attired with a formal demeanor, Mario Monti proved his mettle as a tough negotiator when he blocked the merger of General Electric and Honeywell and levied a euro500 million fine against Microsoft for abusing its dominant position.
"He moves with caution and speaks with nuances. But he moves," said Carlo Guarnieri, a political scientist at the University of Bologna.
A leading economist, Monti is among the most respected men in the country and the most admired Italians in Europe.
That will be no guarantee for success in the Herculean task before him: building a majority large enough to push painful structural reforms through a fractured Parliament to prevent Italy from being dragged into the burgeoning debt crisis.
But Monti does have some clear assets: he is part of the Italian financial establishment, has strong ties to European institutions and governments and enjoys the clear support of President Giorgio Napolitano, who gave Monti a mandate Sunday to form a new government.
Providing a sober contrast to the audacious Silvio Berlusconi, who resigned Saturday, Monti also is the favorite of the financial markets, which eased pressure on Italian borrowing costs after his candidacy gained currency.
Monti, 68, cuts an austere and serious figure, which people who know him say defies a subtle wit. He is multilingual and moves easily among European capitals. Now the president of Milan's prestigious Bocconi University, he spent 10 years at the European Commission, about half in the powerful post of competition commissioner, and is one of the founders of the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank, which blends research with policy recommendations.
Monti is fully engaged in the European conversation on the common currency and the role of its institutions. The night Napolitano named him senator for life in Rome this past week, Monti was sitting on a panel discussing the euro's future in Berlin.
"A person on the flight from Milan this morning asked me, 'Mr. Monti, are you sure your are taking the right flight?"' he quipped.
While there is no question Monti is part of the political elite and travels in the rarified circles of European policymakers, he does not give the impression of being out of touch with ordinary Italians. TV clips show Monti filling his car with gas a clear contrast with fumbling responses by lawmakers asked recently by TV satire programs the price of fuel.
In perk-filled Italy, the image of Monti at the gas tank carries more meaning than that of a powerful figure engaged in ordinary tasks, but that of a powerful man who does not seek privilege something he says he wants to stamp out.
"By introducing more competition, we will in due course introduce more merit and less of a role for nepotism, clientism, corruption, whatever," Monti said in Berlin this week.
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