23rd Oct 2016


Can Italy's 'political serial killer' change EU course on austerity?

  • Renzi (l) with EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy in Rome (Photo:

In June 2013, Matteo Renzi was still pretending that his greatest ambition was to serve a second mandate as mayor of Florence, a mid-sized town of less than 400,000.

A year on, he is rubbing shoulders with the likes of Barack Obama at G7 summits, and is emerging as the biggest counterweight to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the EU political landscape.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

A historic win in last month’s European Parliament elections, where his Democratic Party (PD) took 40.8 percent of votes – the best-ever result for the Italian left, and the highest score ever recorded by a single party since the Christian Democrats in 1958 – has given him a strong hand to challenge Berlin-backed austerity policies, as Italy takes on the EU’s six-month presidency on 1 July.

“He has meticulously planned his rise to the top for the past 10 years. Not many people, be it in politics, journalism or business, have the same tenacity, drive and determination that he has displayed,” says David Allegranti, a political reporter from Florence who has written two books on Renzi.

In February, the 39-year-old became Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister, beating by a few weeks Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who took the post in 1922.

It was the crowning of a career in which Renzi ruthlessly steamrolled rival after rival, starting from his own centre-left camp.

Lapo Pistelli, who employed a young Renzi as a parliamentary assistant in the mid-1990s and was trashed by him in 2009 primary elections for the Florence mayoralty, has called his former protege a political “serial killer”.

The two men have since made up, with Pistelli serving as deputy foreign minister in the current government.

Victory at the polls

A former boy scout who has selected Nelson Mandela and a pious Florence mayor from the 1950s and 1960s who is on track for sainthood, Giorgio La Pira, as his political heroes, over the past 12 months Renzi has fulfilled his ambition of “sending to the scrap yard” the post-communist elite that dominated Italian left-of-centre politics for the past 20 years.

The only blip in Renzi's recent career was losing to former PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani in primaries that selected the centre-left prime ministerial candidate for February 2013 general elections. But Bersani mishandled that campaign, squandering a 20-point-poll lead to end up in a draw with conservatives led by former premier Silvio Berlusconi.

That opened the door to Renzi’s comeback.

With Bersani out of the picture, he wrestled control of the PD in December, getting elected party secretary with almost 70 percent of the votes, after convincing diehard activists, who doubted his left-wing credentials, that he was their best chance to achieve victory at the polls.

He then pounced on party colleague Enrico Letta, a soft-spoken moderate who had a lacklustre 10-month stint as prime minister before Renzi dethroned him in a swift palace coup. In January, the newly-installed PD leader was insisting that he harboured no ambition to take over the top job.

Three months later, Renzi claimed another top-level political scalp. Buoyed by a government pledge to cut taxes for low-paid workers – implemented two days after the elections – the PD won almost twice as many votes as the anti-establishment Five Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo, who had set his sights on winning the top spot in Italy’s EU elections.

“Renzi’s political savviness and capacity to anticipate the moves of his rivals puts him a class above his predecessors,” says Gustav Hofer, a documentary maker who, along with his partner Luca Ragazzi, has shot “What is Left”, a semi-satirical investigation of left-wing identity in modern Italy that is being shown around Europe.

Hofer and Ragazzi have many reservations about the PD leader, who has been criticised at home for running a one-man show, backed by an inner-circle of advisors that ill-tolerates criticism of the controversial electoral and parliamentary reforms that the government is trying to rush through parliament.

The European game

But Hofer expects him to do well in Europe. “With Hollande being so weak, and Cameron stuck on his nationalist positions, Renzi is the best placed leader to push for a bit more solidarity and a bit less austerity,” he says.

The Italian premier is a key player in delicate negotiations among EU leaders on the next president of the European Commission, who also needs the EP’s endorsement. The assembly’s socialist group, where the PD is the largest delegation, has expressed readiness to support Merkel’s candidate – former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker – if he accepts a looser interpretation of EU budget rules.

“Whoever is running to lead the EU commission should first tell us what he intends to do for growth and jobs. Rules must be applied with a minimum of common sense,” Renzi said last week, while his point man for the EU presidency, undersecretary Sandro Gozi, suggested that the EU had “worried a lot about the Stability Pact”, forgetting that “its full name is ‘Stability and Growth Pact’, not just ‘Stability Pact’”.

On Monday, German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel echoed Italian arguments by suggesting that countries adopting reforms that are costly in the short term, but beneficial in the long run, could win some form of budget discipline exemption. But his proposal was immediately shot down by Merkel’s right-hand man, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.

Daniel Gros, the German-born director of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), a Brussels think-tank, thinks Renzi could get his way as long as he delivers on his domestic reform pledges.

“If he manages not just to announce them, but also get them approved by parliament and implemented on the ground, he would have a lot of cards in hands,” Gros says.

He agrees it is a question of reinterpreting, rather than changing EU budget rules.

“Between the Stability Pact, the Fiscal Compact, the Two-Pack and the Six-Pack there are so many of them that you only need to put one against the other to find some margins to allow a country to do a bit less budget consolidation in a given year.”

EU parliament approves Juncker commission

MEPs have approved Juncker's new EU commission, with a slightly smaller majority than in 2010, and following a number of concessions on portfolios.

News in Brief

  1. Canada and Wallonia end talks without Ceta deal
  2. Juncker hopes for Canada accord in 'next few days'
  3. Romania drops opposition to Ceta
  4. Difficulties remain on Ceta deal, says Walloon leader
  5. Brexit could lead to 'some civil unrest' in Northern Ireland
  6. ECB holds rates and continues quantitive easing programme
  7. Support for Danish People's Party drops, poll
  8. Spain's highest court overturns Catalan ban on bullfighting

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFADraft Bill for a 2nd Scottish Independence Referendum
  2. UNICEFCalls on European Council to Address Plight of Refugee and Migrant Children
  3. ECTAJoin us on 9-10 November in Brussels and Discover the new EU Digital Landscape
  4. Access NowCan you Hear me now? Verizon’s Opportunity to Stand for Global Users
  5. Belgrade Security ForumMeaningful Dialogue Missing Not Only in the Balkans, but Throughout Europe
  6. EASPDJoin the Trip! 20 Years on the Road. Conference & Photo Exhibition on 19-21 October
  7. EuropecheEU Fishing Sector Celebrates Sustainably Sourced Seafood in EU Parliament
  8. World VisionWomen and Girls Urge EU Leadership to Help end Gender-based Violence
  9. Dialogue PlatformIs Jihadism Blind Spot of Western Intellectuals ? Wednesday 26 October
  10. Belgrade Security ForumGet the Latest News and Updates on the Belgrade Security Forum @BelSecForum
  11. Crowdsourcing Week EuropeMaster Crowdsourcing, Crowdfunding and Innovation! Conference 21 November - 10% Discount Code CSWEU16
  12. EJCEU Parliament's Roadmap for Relations with Iran a Massive Missed Opportunity

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersFish Skin on Bare Skin: Turning Fish Waste into Sustainable Fashion
  2. CEDECOpportunities From the Creation of Synergies at Local Level in the Energy Transition
  3. ACCAFinTech Boom Needs Strong Guidance to Navigate Regulatory Hurdles
  4. Counter BalanceWhy the Investment Plan for Europe Does not Drive the Sustainable Energy Transition
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region Seeks to Make Its Voice Heard in the World
  6. Taipei EU OfficeCountries Voice Support for Taiwan's Participation in ICAO
  7. GoogleDid You Know Europe's Largest Dinosaur Gallery Is in Brussels? Check It Out Now
  8. IPHRHuman Rights in Uzbekistan After Karimov - Joint Statement
  9. CISPECloud Infrastructure Providers Unveil Data Protection Code of Conduct
  10. EFAMessages of Hope From the Basque Country and Galicia
  11. Access NowDigital Rights Heroes & Villains. Who Protects Your Rights, Who Wants to Take Them Away