Ital's Monti to lawmakers: "Don't pull the plug"

By Nicole Winfield

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Nov. 18 2011 7:06 a.m. MST

Pope Benedict XVI, right, is welcomed by the Italian Premier Mario Monti as he arrives to board a plane to Benin, at Fiumicino international airport, near Rome, Friday, Nov. 18, 2011. Premier Mario Monti greeted the pope as Benedict descended from the helicopter that brought him from the Vatican to the airport. They chatted as they walked slowly across the tarmac to the pope's waiting plane. Benedict then took off for the west African nation of Benin for a three-day visit where he will speak of the role of the church in Africa.

Riccardo De Luca, Associated Press

ROME — Italian Premier Mario Monti urged lawmakers Friday to not "pull the plug" on his government before elections in 2013, no matter how politically painful the measures in his plan to save Italy from its debt crisis.

Monti also told the lower Chamber of Deputies ahead of a confidence vote in his new government that he would travel to Brussels next week to the European Commission and would meet with the French and German leaders to map out strategy.

"The job that I have had the honor of receiving is nearly impossible, but we will succeed," Monti said.

On Thursday, Monti's government won a confidence vote 281-25 in the Senate after he warned all Italians would need to make sacrifices to get the country out of its massive debt hole.

Monti is under enormous pressure to boost growth and bring down Italy's high debt, which at 120 percent of GDP is among the highest in the eurozone. The aim is not only to save Italy from succumbing to the debt crisis but to prevent a catastrophic disintegration of the common euro currency.

Monti told lawmakers his strategy had three main pillars: Budgetary rigor, economic growth and social fairness. He pledged to reform the pension system, re-impose a tax on homes annulled by Berlusconi's government, fight tax evasion, streamline civil court proceedings, get more women and youth into the work force and cut political costs.

On Friday, his remarks were more aimed at answering lingering doubts among those who voted against his government, have conditioned their approval on how long it lasts, or took to the streets Thursday to protest his cabinet of bankers, university professors and CEOs.

"We won't be around for long," Monti said. "We won't last a minute longer than the time this parliament gives us their confidence."

But he stressed that he never would have gathered together such a high-caliber government if the intent wasn't to govern until the natural end of the legislative term, in spring 2013. He has said anything less than that would undermine the government's credibility.

While acknowledging the absolute dependence of his government on parliament, he jokingly asked to avoid using terms like "pull the plug" because it implied the government was some kind of an "artificial lung" when in fact it is leading the country through a profound crisis.

"We're not asking for blind trust, but vigilant trust," Monti said.

But he also issued a warning of sorts, noting the sense of desperation among ordinary Italians about Italy's economic mess: "In giving us confidence or taking it away, you must also realize the consequences for yourselves among Italians."

It was a clear message to Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, which has said it would only support Monti's government for as long as needed to pass the measures demanded by the EU.

Party secretary Angelino Alfano told state television Thursday that the party hadn't given Monti a deadline. "But what is certain is that we are making the link between the government and its program, and once the program is finished we're heading to the polls."

Europe has already bailed out three small countries — Greece, Ireland and Portugal — but the Italian economy, the third-largest in the 17-nation eurozone, is too big for Europe to rescue. Borrowing costs on 10-year Italian bonds were at 6.75 percent Friday, after spiking briefly over 7 percent Thursday, a level that forced those other countries into bailouts.

In a conference call Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Monti agreed that their countries have a special responsibility to the eurozone as its three largest economies and founding members of the European Union.

Monti said his meeting with Sarkozy and Merkel would mark the start of "a permanent Italian contribution to the solution of the debt problem."

Still, it's not clear how many sacrifices Italians are willing or able to make. Students demonstrated across the country on Thursday under the banner: "Save the schools, not the banks."

Monti's ambitious plans overhaul just about every aspect of the Italian economy — from the organization of local governments to the selection process for teachers. Monti indicated he would seek to lower taxes on labor, while raising those on consumption. And he pledged measures — such as setting a limit on cash transactions — to tackle tax evasion, which he estimated is worth 20 percent of GDP.

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