Europe takes key role in Italy's elections
(ROME) - The European Union -- for better or worse -- has taken a key role in the campaign ahead of Italy's elections this month, which are being closely watched across Europe for signs of instability.
Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi and election favourite Pier Luigi Bersani of the Democratic Party, "have a very strong reference point in Europe," columnist Franco Debenedetti told AFP.
Monti is counting on the quiet support of all major European leaders -- after winning global acclaim for healing public finances and establishing himself as a defence against any new crisis.
A tour by Monti of European capitals ahead of the summit in Brussels this week to discuss the European Union's next budget, proved controversial before the February 24-25 general election.
"Some little jokers tried to say that I was going to Brussels, Berlin and Paris for electoral reasons. I went to defend Italy," Monti said.
But leftist daily La Repubblica was not convinced.
"Three weeks from the elections, everything takes on an electoral value," it said in an editorial.
For Monti "it is time to play the card of the respect he enjoys in Europe," it added.
Bersani meanwhile has been looking for greater international visibility, even though he has already served as minister in two previous leftist governments under former premier Romano Prodi.
On a visit to Berlin on Tuesday, he said the answer to the euro crisis was a "United States of Europe".
"We know that we must guarantee that we are stable. We know that we need to continue the path of reforms and even toughen them," said the former communist who now espouses liberal economic views.
Debenedetti said Bersani had so far pursued "a very prudent election campaign" including on European themes, so as not to lose the clear lead he has held in the polls since the election was called.
A conference entitled "Renaissance for Europe" in Turin in northern Italy on Friday and Saturday hosted by an Brussels-based leftist think tank with major European progressive leaders is also aimed at raising his international prestige.
"Silvio Berlusconi is exactly the opposite. He has captured popular discontent with the euro and has taken on a populist tone," Debenedetti said.
Taking advantage of rising social discontent over the crisis and Monti's austerity measures, Berlusconi attacks EU bureaucrats and what he calls a "hegemonic" Germany that lords it over Europe.
He has dismissed European Council President Herman Van Rompuy as "an unknown" and has accused northern Europe of "getting rich at our expense".
Commenting Monti's European tour, Berlusconi said: "He is travelling because he is the head of government but also for a bit of electoral theatre."
Angelino Alfano, head of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, went further saying: "While we are going around Italy's squares, Monti is spending a lot of his time between Brussels and Berlin.
"We would like to remind him that it is Italians who will be voting, not European prime ministers".
La Repubblica said recent tensions on the financial markets were linked to Berlusconi's rise in the polls, which could make for greater instability even though he remains in second place.
"Red alert in all European chancelleries and Brussels institutions. Silvio Berlusconi's return and his election promises make people fear the worst," it said.
Election promises by Berlusconi, particularly the promise to reimburse an unpopular property tax, have helped push up Italy's bond rates and drive down stock prices in recent days, analysts say.
A European Central Bank expert quoted by La Repubblica said: "If Italy has a problem, then the rest of Europe automatically has a huge problem".