This video of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy has stirred a sense of nationalistic pride in Italy. Everyone seems to be talking about it.
The smirk shared by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy when quizzed about Silvio Berlusconi at their Brussels press conference on Sundaymade headlines in Italy on Monday and prompted even some of the Italian prime minister’s fiercest enemies to close ranks behind him.
Leading daily Corriere della Sera, which has criticised Berlusconi for delaying the economic stimulus package demanded by Europe, called the behaviour of Merkel and Sarkozy "excessive" in a front page editorial, adding: "For an Italian it was not great, and it matters little if you are pro- or anti-Berlusconi."
The French and German leaders – now dubbed ‘Merkozy’ – exchanged glances and smiled when asked if they were confident Berlusconi would come up with reforms, prompting a gale of laughter from journalists.
"No one is authorised to ridicule Italy, even after Berlusconi’s obvious and embarrassing delays in tackling the crisis," said Pier Ferdinando Casini, the head of the opposition UDC party, adding: "I didn’t like Sarkozy’s sarcastic smile."
More predictably, Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, did not split hairs, likening Sarkozy’s smile to the headbutt delivered to Italian footballer Marco Matterazzi by France’s Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final.
La Repubblica summed up the general discomfort at seeing Italy put on par with Greece at the Brussels summit being held to thrash out a solution for the European debt crisis, calling any parallels with Italy’s neighbour "ungenerous".
Berlusconi appeared to blame Sarkozy’s behaviour on his unhappiness over Italy’s overrepresentation on the board at the European Central Bank, now that Italian Mario Draghi has been appointed chairman and Italian board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi is refusing to step down to make way for a French appointee. "Sarkozy has started to get annoyed," said Berlusconi. "At a certain point I said to Sarkozy, ‘But what am I supposed to do? Kill him?’"
Italian newspapers have suggested that Merkel’s decision to share the joke with Sarkozy might have been payback after reports that Berlusconi made a vulgar joke about her looks.
Why is everyone making such a big deal out of this video? I see it as two people looking at each other wondering who is going to be brave enough to take that one on. French President Sarkozy takes it on and does a professional job.
See for yourself.
Let’s be honest, though; despite Italy’s primary surplus, they do have a mountain of debt. That’s why Italian yields are flirting with the 6% level. That’s why ex Bank of Italy head Mario Draghi fears an Italian debt spiral. That’s why Italy is being downgraded by all of the ratings agencies. Italy is in the hot seat for a reason.
Angela Merkel was right when she said:
Markets demand higher interest rates on Italian bonds because the level of such debt is “seen very critically,” she said.
“We want to and we must defend the euro — and we will — but not to the extent that we forget what the source of the crisis is,” Merkel said in a speech in the western German city of Wiesbaden before heading to Brussels to tackle the crisis.
The European Sovereign Debt Crisis is a solvency crisis. It is a serious question whether Italy is solvent longer-term, yes. That’s why Italy is under attack. The right way to deal with this is to stop the panic and address the issues that could lead to longer-term insolvency: high debt and interest costs plus slow growth. And yes, these are the same issues for Greece. Unless Italy gets serious about its debt problem, they are headed in the same direction.