- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 25, 2011

MILAN — Pressure built on Italy’s embattled prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, as he struggled Tuesday to muster support for an emergency growth plan, which the EU wants within hours and which could cost the tenacious leader his job.

Mr. Berlusconi has survived scandals, court cases and dozens of confidence votes, but experts say this economic plan will be one of the most critical tests yet of his grasp of the country’s leadership.

Eurozone governments are trying to come up with a comprehensive plan to tackle their debt crisis by Wednesday.

As part of that, they demanded that Italy draft new economic measures, arguing it would be pointless to protect the country from market turmoil if it didn’t pull its own weight.

But Mr. Berlusconi has found little support within his coalition for the demanded measures.

Crucially, he faces resistance from his powerful ally, the Northern League, a minority coalition party led by Umberto Bossi and without whose support his government falls.

Berlusconi has an immovable object at home which is Bossi and the Northern League, and an unstoppable force abroad which is the European Union, so he’s in a very, very difficult position,” said James Walston, a political science professor at American University in Rome.

Mr. Bossi himself conceded that the government is at risk.

“Let’s say the situation is difficult, very dangerous,” he told reporters in Rome.

A Cabinet meeting to draft the emergency growth measures ended Monday evening in silence — a clear indication of discord within the government majority.

The European Union wants Italy to raise its standard pension age from 65 to 67, change the legal system to encourage investment and pass other reforms to improve growth.

All are measures that have been talked about for years in successive governments, but there has been little political will to see through the unpopular decisions.

The Northern League, whose constituency is made up of workers in productive northern Italy, staunchly opposes raising the pension age.

But it’s a move that partners such as Germany view as critical.

Germany is raising its pension age to 67 for anyone born after 1964, and Chancellor Angela Merkel will have a hard time explaining to voters at home why Europe’s largest economy should be ready to help countries whose workers retire earlier.

A policy impasse this time could cost Mr. Berlusconi his power.

The failure of Mr. Berlusconi’s majority in parliament to pass a routine measure earlier this month shows just how tenuous his hold on power has become.

Mr. Berlusconi survived with a vote of confidence, but the impression remained that his government is weaker than ever — and could fall on any test.



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