Three men to shape Italy's EU election campaign
European elections in Italy are expected to be a three-way race between the parties of a young, ambitious Prime Minister who has just staged a palace coup; a populist comedian who wants to wipe out the entire ruling elite; and a scandal-prone septuagenarian who is battling for his political survival.
Matteo Renzi, Beppe Grillo, Silvio Berlusconi - these are the characters most likely to shape the debate ahead of the 25 May vote.
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Renzi, who leads the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), pushed aside party colleague Enrico Letta earlier in February to take over the premiership.
The move was seen as an attempt to end a stalemate on urgent political and economic reforms and to counter the risk of Grillo and Berlusconi - neither of whom is running to be an MEP - scoring large gains in EU election.
"Throughout Europe, European elections offer fertile ground to extremists and populists. Certainly the game will be tough also in Italy, but I am convinced that if the PD can deliver reforms in the coming months, it should have nothing to fear," PD lawmaker Sandro Gozi told EUobserver.
Italy has barely emerged from the longest recession since World War II, with gross domestic output up by a measly 0.1 percent in the last quarter of 2013.
Output has shrunk back to levels seen in the early 2000s while unemployment has risen to almost 13 percent, double the pre-crisis levels of 2007.
Trust in EU falls to 23 percent
Against this backdrop, trust in the EU has fallen to 23 percent, according to a Eurobarometer survey presented on 14 February.
Ferdinando Nelli Feroci, a former Italian ambassador to the EU and current director of the IAI think tank in Rome, says people throughout southern Europe are blaming Brussels for the lean times of the last few years.
"Regardless of whether it is true or not, the perception is that the crisis is largely Europe's fault," Nelli Feroci told this website.
Grillo's Five Star Movement (M5S) claims Italy has committed "suicide" before the "cruel god of austerity".
Its solution – partly expressed in a one page seven-point manifesto, partly in Grillo's stump speeches – is to pull out from all eurozone budget discipline agreements such as the fiscal compact; default on debt repayments; invest in agricultural and energy self-sufficiency; and relaunch public investments.
The M5S's manifesto calls for Eurobonds, even if Grillo has suggested a split into a "two-speed euro", with Italy forming a devalued currency bloc with Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and France.
Grillo, whose party took a quarter of the votes in last year's general elections, is confident of success.
"We will win the European elections, mark my words," he said in January. "We are in for a rollercoaster ride."
The Northern League is the other loud anti-Brussels voice.
New leader Matteo Salvini, who is an outgoing MEP, is trying to reverse the party's recent decline by adding an anti-euro campaign to its traditional anti-immigrant rhetoric which last year escalated to the point of comparing a black government minister to "an orangutan".
The single currency, Salvini argues, is a "criminal" project which has "killed Italian agriculture, industry, craftmanship, retail and tourism industries".
He is preparing a European Parliament alliance with fellow hard-right groups such as France's National Front, the Dutch PVV, Austria's FPO and Flemish separatists.
Berlusconi's Forza Italia flirts with eurosceptism
Berlusconi – still on top of the political stage despite his eviction from parliament due to a tax fraud conviction –has also flirted with euroscepticism, notwithstanding his conservative Forza Italia party's membership of the federalist European People's Party.
"The euro for us is a foreign currency, which we adopted at a crazy exchange rate, giving up our monetary sovereignty," the three-time former premier complained on 10 February.
In the run-up to the vote, Forza Italia is likely to turn up the heat against Berlin, whom many Berlusconi sympathizers suspect of plotting against their leader in late 2011, when he was pushed out of office at the height of a financial crisis and replaced with EU technocrat Mario Monti.
Berlin has denied any involvement.
Renzi the most pro-EU leader
That leaves the untested Renzi – a 39-year-old who ran local authorities in Florence for 10 years but has no experience of national government – as the most pro-EU leader in the campaign.
"The real challenge is to find a convincing narrative that can in some way rival the appeal of eurosceptics. It will not be easy," ex-ambassador Nelli Feroci commented.
He suggested "explaining with a few facts and figures what fanciful plans like leaving the euro would cost for Italy, how it would impact public and private debt".
The Eurobarometer poll showed there is still a relatively comfortable 56-36 percent majority in favour of Italy's euro membership.
But Renzi's plan is more ambitious.
He wants to deliver a quick-fire succession of major reforms to make Italy's politics more stable and its economy more dynamic, in the hope of impressing voters before 25 May.
And he aims to capitalize on that success with EU partners, by extracting concessions on austerity targets.
"We have the European semester in July, and the objective is to get to that date and start discussing a different Europe . . . we want to try to do it having cleaned up our house, having done our homework," Renzi said on 19 February.
Giuseppe Roma, head of top research institute Censis, is convinced that, despite disenchantment with EU policies, European ideals remain popular with Italians. He doubts, therefore, that there could be a eurosceptic breakthrough of the magnitude that is talked about in Britain or France.
The campaign has yet to get into full swing and a full list of parties and candidates running in the elections will not be known until mid-April.
As things stand, the PD leads in opinion polls with over 30 percent, followed by Forza Italia and the M5S on 20-25 percent.
The League is hovering around the four percent threshold for parliamentary representation, while the New Centre Right, a party that broke ranks with Berlusconi and is now part of the ruling coalition, is slightly more popular.
"Everything is still up for play," says Claudio Cerasa, a political journalist from the Il Foglio newspaper.
Voters in Italy will elect 73 MEPs to the 751-strong European Parliament on 25 May.