ROME — Premier Silvio Berlusconi promised today to resign after parliament passes economic reforms demanded by the European Union, capping a two-decade political career that has ended with Italy on the brink of being swept into Europe’s debt crisis.
Berlusconi met for about an hour Tuesday evening with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano after the premier lost his parliamentary majority during a routine vote earlier Tuesday. In a statement, Napolitano’s office said Berlusconi had “understood the implications of the vote” and promised during the meeting to resign once parliament passes economic reforms designed to spur growth and rein in Italy’s public debt.
A vote on the measures is planned for next week.
Berlusconi’s government is under intense pressure to enact quick reforms to shore up Italy’s defenses against Europe’s raging debt crisis. However, a weak coalition and doubts over Berlusconi’s leadership have ignited market fears of a looming Italian financial disaster that could bring down the 17-nation eurozone and shock the global economy.
Italy’s borrowing rates spiked Tuesday to their highest level since the euro was established in 1999. The yield on Italy’s ten-year bonds was up 0.24 percentage point at 6.77 percent. A rate of over 7 percent is considered unsustainable and proved to be the trigger point that forced Greece, Portugal and Ireland into accepting financial bailouts.
The president’s office said that once Berlusconi resigns, Napolitano would begin political consultations to form a new government. The most widely discussed name to lead a technical government is Mario Monti, the former EU competition commissioner. The statement made no mention of the possibility of early elections.
The developments capped a convulsive day in the markets and in Italy’s political circles after parliament approved the 2010 state accounts, but dealt Berlusconi a withering blow by revealing that he no longer commands enough support to govern.
Up until Tuesday night, he had refused to heed calls from all sides to step down but the tally made clear he had little choice.
Tuesday’s vote garnered 308 votes of approval and none against in the Chamber of Deputies. But 321 deputies abstained from voting — most from the opposition center-left — a tactic that laid bare Berlusconi’s shrinking hold.
Berlusconi’s margin was eight shy of the 316 votes he needs to claim an overall majority in the 630-member chamber.
“This government does not have the majority!” thundered opposition leader Pierluigi Bersani after the vote. “If you have a crumb of sense in front of Italy, give your resignation.”
As Bersani spoke, Berlusconi scribbled his options on a piece of paper. An AP photo showed he wrote “resignation” and also “eight traitors,” an apparent reference to former allies who had abstained.
“Today’s vote was a clear confirmation that the ruling coalition has lost its majority, meaning that chances that Berlusconi will lose the confidence vote are very high,” said Unicredit economists Chiara Corsa and Loredana Federico.
Prior to Tuesday’s vote, even Berlusconi’s top ally Umberto Bossi of the Northern League urged the premier to leave.
“We asked him to step aside,” said Bossi, the volatile ally who brought down Berlusconi’s first conservative government in 1994. Bossi said Berlusconi should let his hand-picked successor, former Justice Minister Angelino Alfano, lead the government.
Italy is the eurozone’s third-largest economy, with debts of around (euro) 1.9 trillion ($2.6 trillion). Representing 17 percent of the eurozone’s gross domestic product, it is considered too big for Europe to bail out like Greece, Portugal and Ireland already have been.
Even worse, a substantial part of Italy’s debt needs to be rolled over in the next few years — the nation needs to raise (euro) 300 billion ($412 billion) in 2012 alone — just as interest rates for it to borrow have been soaring.
Berlusconi last week took the humiliating step of asking the International Monetary Fund to monitor the country’s reform efforts in a bid to reassure markets. On Wednesday, a separate European Union monitoring mission is to begin work in Rome to review measures taken so far.
The EU’s questionnaire put to Italy ahead of the mission says “additional measures” will be needed beyond what Italy has pledged to do, to balance the budget by 2013, according to the text shown on Italy’s Sky TG24.
“The economic and financial situation of Italy is very worrying and we want to help Italy through our rigorous surveillance,” said EU Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn.
Business leaders once enthusiastically backed the media mogul’s leadership, but now some say his government has failed to revive Italy’s stalled economy.
“(Italy) cannot go forward” with the soaring spread. “The country cannot stay in these conditions,” said Emma Marcegaglia, who leads an influential Italian business lobby.
Others, like the CEO of Italy’s second-largest bank, Intesa Sanpaolo SpA, expressed confidence in Italy’s ability to navigate the debt crisis.
Corrado Passera conceded that widening spread between Italian and German borrowing rates is “certainly a cause for concern.” But he expressed optimism that Italy would be able to refinance its debts, emphasizing Italy’s primary surplus, low family and business indebtedness, strong manufacturing sector and high level of public and private assets.
“Italy will rebuild its credibility on the basis of a balanced combination of austerity and development that will reduce total debt and create sustainable development and jobs,” he told an investment conference call.
The opposition center-left has long demanded that Berlusconi resign, citing sex scandals, criminal prosecutions and legislative priorities it says are aimed at protecting the premier’s own business interests rather than those of the country. However, it has failed to come up with a leader and program to energize its base.
Jan Randolph, head of sovereign risk analysis at IHS Global Insight, said Berlusconi’s resignation, if it ever happened, would bring a short relief rally to the markets.
“But Italy will not be out of the heat of bond markets until a solid and stable government actually implements austerity and undertakes reforms with strong credible leadership,” Randolph said.