Can 'Mediator Monti' help save crisis-hit eurozone?

ROME - Mario Monti's diplomatic skills will be put to the test on Friday, as he is called to mediate between the eurozone's biggest economies as they race to find common solutions to the fierce debt crisis.

The talks in Rome between Germany, France, Italy and Spain come ahead of a crucial EU summit in Brussels on July 28-29 and the leaders are under intense pressure from international partners for greater unity on divisive issues.

The 69-year-old Italian premier will be drawing on both a 10-year stint in Brussels as a former European Union commissioner and his experience as professor at Italy's training ground for financial elites, the Bocconi University in Milan.

"In football terms, Monti is the one who makes decisive passes," Jean-Pierre Darnis, an expert at Italy's International Affairs Institute, told AFP.

"With his skills, and the respect of both the right and left wing in Europe, he can grease the wheels and help bring about a compromise," he added.

Economic observers in Italy appear convinced that Rome is best placed to adopt a position as negotiator between France and Germany in particular and speed up integration to prevent any more countries succumbing to the eurozone debt crisis.

"Italy is the ideal country to mediate because it is the smallest among the big European countries and the biggest among the small ones. It is also both 'northern' and 'southern'," commentator Mario Deaglio wrote in La Stampa daily.

"It has a high level of debt but has been the quickest to carry out steps over the past months to get out of the crisis," he said, adding that Italy may be able to ensure real agreements at the talks "and not the umpteenth delay."

Monti is also seen by some as an initiative taker, after relaunching an idea to use eurozone rescue funding to lower borrowing costs at a G20 summit this week - though Germany has yet to be convinced on a burden-sharing system.

Italian government sources insist that Monti's recent entry onto the scene - he took over from former premier Silvio Berlusconi in November - and his rapid implementation of reforms, put him in a strong position to negotiate.

Monti "will be in a position to mediate based on his experience and past," though the talks could end up being simply an "exchange of ideas," a source said.

Despite talks of a new three-way alliance between France, Italy and Germany, Monti has no intention of interfering in talks between Berlin and the Elysee Palace, or setting up a southern front against Germany, she said.

"The Franco-German duo is very important. No-one is denying that. It is not a question of creating a trio," she said, adding that Rome's priority was not to seek a position of power but to "quickly establish a crisis solution."

Italy does seem to have garnered fresh respect in the eyes of its partners after the fall of its media magnate premier amid a series of sex scandals.

Monti and French President Francois Hollande underlined shared views on the crisis last week, and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has hailed the Italian as "the right leader, at the right time, in the right place."

The Rome talks may not result in concrete measures ahead of the Brussels summit, but they will benefit from all four leaders taking part, Darnis said.

The presence of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will reassure Madrid that it is "important for the eurozone," as the bloc's fourth largest economy fights off debt-crisis sharks with a bailout for its stricken banks.

It will also be a chance for France's new president to show the "break in policy with his predecessor," by following in late Socialist president Francois Mitterrand's footsteps in strengthening ties with Spain and Italy.

For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it could be a chance to better relations with France after a period of strain and tension during the French election.

And for Monti, "it could have a ricochet effect, advancing his domestic projects which are currently meeting resistance from lobbies," Darnis said.

Though he got a pension reform and austerity package quickly adopted on coming to power six months ago, Monti has since had to fight tooth and claw to liberalise the economy, overhaul the labour market and reduce public spending.

Many observers hope the determination he has showed in grappling with bitter trade unions and a clogged bureaucracy in Italy will stand him in good stead for the mammoth task of helping the eurozone's Big Four find common ground.

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