Italy's man of the moment Monti

2011-11-13 13:22

Rome - Italy's Mario Monti, the sober economist set to take over from the larger-than-life Silvio Berlusconi, is a former top European commissioner who could not be more different from the outgoing premier.

Affable but reserved, the professorial 68-year-old heads Milan's prestigious Bocconi University - the breeding ground of Italy's financial elite - and was nominated senator-for-life this week ahead of his expected promotion.

In stark contrast to the Berlusconi years of fast cars, luxury villas and bimbos, he has spent the past few days being chased by a pack of reporters and photographers around Rome while occupied with relatively mundane tasks.

The silver-haired economist went to pick up his wife of 40 years at the train station on Friday and caused a media scrum when he went to mass on Sunday. Peppered with questions, he smiled and said: "It's a nice day today."

With no experience in political office, Monti has however earned a formidable reputation as the top trust-busting bureaucrat in Brussels taking on - and winning against - US corporate giants Microsoft and General Electric over European competition laws.

An occasional columnist for the top-selling Corriere della Sera daily, he has written in recent months about the need to defend the eurozone and condemned Berlusconi's government for failing to act quickly on reforms.

Monti "is not a cold technocrat, he is a passionate Italian, ready to carry out the civil servant role without personal objectives", Corriere della Sera said in a thinly-veiled reference to the scandal-tainted Berlusconi.

La Repubblica said: "What is most striking is the contrast between his sober character, his calm manner, and his courage to challenge national vices."

He has collected endorsements from across Italy's political spectrum and from top business leaders, as well as the international community.

"I know Mario Monti very well. I have a lot of esteem and a lot of respect for him. I think he is a man of great qualities," International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde said last week.

Emma Marcegaglia, the head of Italy's main employers' federation Confindustria, also offered Monti her backing, saying that an election campaign now would be "very negative" for the markets.

Berlusconi, who had lunch with him on Saturday as one of his last acts as prime minister, has said Monti would work "in the interests of the country".

Born on March 19 1943 in Varese in northern Italy, he graduated in 1965 from Bocconi - considered the training ground for Italy's economic elite. He went on to study at Yale in the United States with Nobel-winner James Tobin.

He began teaching at Turin University in 1970 and left in 1985 to become a professor in political economy at Bocconi, where he became the dean in 1994.

It was in Turin in northern Italy, which has a famous museum of Egyptian artifacts, that he began his life-long passion for ancient Egypt.

In 1994 he was put forward as European commissioner by Berlusconi's first government and stayed on in Brussels even after Massimo D'Alema took over as prime minister - giving him a reputation as being above party politics.

"If Italy had not been part of the euro, we would have by now a history of the last 12 years of more inflation, less disciplined policies and less respect for future generations. We would be irrelevant," he said in one of his columns.

"Italy has never been as critical to Europe's future, or as uninvolved in the decisions on Europe's future," he said.

Romano Prodi, a former prime minister and former European Commission president, gave him his blessing in an interview with La Repubblica.

"Monti's time has come," Prodi told the newspaper. He said Monti could play a crucial role because he was "respected in Europe and the world".

Under Monti's leadership, the European Commission established a formidable reputation of enforcing strict free competition rules.

Monti's image was that of an official with a keen understanding of business who could withstand the high levels of pressure needed for his post.

Aides described him as a courteous but fearsome figure who was difficult to interpret and was nicknamed "the cardinal" in Brussels.

"With very polite words, he can send you to the inquisition if he believes it is just and necessary," one former aide said.

In an article at the time entitled Super Mario - a moniker inherited by current European Central Bank president Mario Draghi - The Economist called him "one of the most powerful bureaucrats in Europe".