* Monti leaves future open, says hopes to influence ideas
* Berlusconi lashes out at Germany, says spread is "a con"
* Berlin backs Monti, says unacceptable to be targeted by
By James Mackenzie
ROME, Dec 11 Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti
warned against a slide into populism on Tuesday as Silvio
Berlusconi attacked his technocrat government, accusing it of
failed "Germano-centric" policies that had dragged Italy into
With elections now expected in February, financial markets
have reacted nervously to the return of Berlusconi to seek a
fifth term as prime minister, just over a year after being
forced from office at the height of the financial crisis.
In a possible foretaste of the election campaign to come,
the 76-year-old media billionaire laid into Monti's technocrat
government, which he said had accepted failed policies dictated
"The Monti government has followed the Germano-centric
policies which Europe has tried to impose on other states and it
has created a crisis situation much worse than where we were
when we were in government," Berlusconi said in an interview on
his own Canale 5 television network.
He dismissed the sharp drop on financial markets which
followed news of his return, saying the main gauge of investor
trust in Italy, the spread between Italian bonds and their safer
German counterparts, was "a con".
He also accused Germany of deliberately speculating on the
euro zone debt crisis to favour its banks and drive down its own
Berlusconi's remarks prompted a sharp response from Berlin,
where German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that it was
unacceptable "for Germany to be made the target of a populist
Speaking on state television on Tuesday, Monti left his own
political future open but defended his government's economic
record and warned against "oversimplified" election promises
that hid the true problems facing Italy.
"It's important that there is this self-discipline on
everyone's part so as not to create ruptures with Europe and
above all not to treat people like fools but like mature
citizens," he said.
"A QUESTION OF CULTURE"
Financial markets were calmer on Tuesday and the spread
between Italian and German 10-year bond yields narrowed to 340
basis points from more than 360 points on Monday, well off the
peak of over 550 points when Berlusconi lost power a year ago.
Monti, an economics professor drafted in to head an
unelected government, has been widely credited with restoring
Italy's international credibility and a growing list of European
policymakers has lined up to sing his praises.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she supported his
reform agenda and was confident it would continue. "I am sure
the Italian people will vote in such a way that Italy stays on
the right path," she told reporters in Berlin.
Despite speculation that he could remain in politics, the
former European commissioner has said he is concentrating on his
remaining time in government and not thinking about whether to
stand as a candidate in the election expected in February.
He again left his own political plans open, refusing to
confirm speculation that he could join a centrist grouping or
lend his name to a pro-European reform party.
"Politics is above all a question of culture, that is,
trying to give direction to people's ideas," he told state
television station RAI.
"I think I did it when I was a professor, I'm trying to do
it in this brief period when I'm prime minister, I'm sure that,
whatever hat I'm wearing in future, I will continue to do it."
Whether or not he stands for a new term in office, there has
been wide speculation that Monti could become Italy's next
president, an office which would allow him to play a crucial
role in influencing the overall political debate.
"THE SPREAD IS A CON"
Opinion polls give Berlusconi's squabbling centre-right
People of Freedom (PDL) party little chance of winning the vote,
with centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani seen for now as
Monti's most likely successor.
However Berlusconi could still have a chance of winning
enough votes in the Senate to prevent a stable Bersani
government being formed if he can patch up an alliance with his
former coalition allies in the regionalist Northern League.
Berlusconi, who has made Germany the target of some of his
fiercest attacks, said Germany had worsened Italy's crisis last
year by ordering all its banks to sell all the Italian debt
securities they held in their portfolios.
"This fact brought in 7, 8, 9 billion in revenues. The other
American and international funds thought, if Germany is selling,
there must be something behind it and they sold too," he said.
He scorned markets and the risk premium over German bonds, a
staple of Italian news reports for more than a year.
"The spread is a con, an invention used to defeat a
government majority voted for by Italians," he told Canale 5.
"We never heard of it before. People have only been speaking
of it in the past year and what does it matter?"