November 10th, 2011
03:14 AM GMT
Editor's note: CNN anchor Nina dos Santos spent four years in Italy as a correspondent and covered Silvio Berlusconi’s re-election in 2008.
(CNN) – As world leaders battled to stave off another recession, Silvio Berlusconi spent much of the summit season eyeing the contours of his female counterparts.
Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was the latest to suffer the ignominy of being ogled by the Italian Premier at the G20 in Cannes, while cameras caught Berlusconi leering at Denmark’s Helle Thorning-Schmidt in Brussels.
Berlusconi clearly has a head for figures. Unfortunately he has been focussing on the wrong kind for too long – much to the detriment of his long-suffering electorate.
As the sun finally sets on his time in office, he leaves the eurozone’s third-largest economy in tatters with the world’s fourth-largest debt pile.
Italy matters because it accounts for nearly 13% of the European Union’s total output. The nation’s debt load, however, is close to a fifth of the bloc’s total.
Another set of vital statistics, which fatefully for "Il Cavaliere" is also going in opposite directions.
While Italy’s obligations have continued to climb, growth has stagnated, meaning urgent austerity measures are needed to close the gap.
Now the country aims to eradicate its budget deficit by 2013 (a year earlier than previously planned).
That’s an ambitious plan by anyone’s standards, but given Italy’s slow pace of reform the government’s targets appear increasingly unrealistic, just like its cosmetically enhanced leader.
Berlusconi first rose to power in the mid-1990s. At the time, Italy was one of Europe’s richest places with a GDP per capita second-only to Germany. Between 2001 and 2008 the country slipped behind both the UK and France.
Years of missed deadlines and loopy legislation have left this olive belt economy more prone to recession than its neighbors.
The country has been through four slumps since adopting the single currency. Its annual growth averaged at just three quarters of a percent over the past 15 years.
Worse still, Italy's rigid labor market, which Berlusconi has failed to tackle, makes it difficult for the country’s young to climb onto the job ladder. The lack of flexibility will probably impede privatizations despite the abundance of family silver that could be up for sale.
Add to this an aging population that will soon be facing pension cuts.
Catholic charity Caritas estimates that 14% of Italians are facing poverty these days with a spike in those under 35 years old.
The scope of social unrest has not gone unnoticed by the new IMF Chief Christine Lagarde.
A victim of Berlusconi’s poisoned-chalice praise earlier this year, the former French finance minister warned that chronic unemployment could lead to a “lost generation” across the eurozone.
Italy’s jobless rate stood at 8.3% in September.
Soon even Berlusconi will be out of a job though it’s hard to imagine him "signing on" for income support.
As his country’s precarious finances threaten to make the eurozone poorer, the Italian media tycoon remains the 118th richest person on the planet with a personal fortune of $6.2 billion.
Yet Berlusconi is as much the symptom of his country’s crazy politics as he is the cause of its equally absurd economics.
The master of reinvention and king of comebacks, Berlusconi has long been seen as one of Europe’s most unstable leaders.
It is therefore somewhat ironic that he has presided over the country’s longest-running governments since World War II.
He will leave big problems to solve and equally big shoes to fill.
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