Sunday

19th Feb 2017

EUobserved

Renzi - reminding Europe of what it doesn't have

Well that was quite refreshing. In he bounded, the right side of 40, all grins and references to selfies and ancient philosophers, brash and self-confident.

Yes, it was Italian PM Matteo Renzi's first appearance in the European Parliament. Speaking without notes, he told his audience that Europe is moving at half the speed of the rest of the world, that its single-minded focus on financial spreadsheets has eviscerated its soul and that its face was tired and resigned.

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He sounded like a man who was about to become president of the EU rather than just have his bureaucracy oversee the EU's law-making bureaucracy for the coming half year.

Riding the back of a strong victory in the EU elections, where a reform platform saw him win 41 percent of the Italian vote, his ebullience begs listeners to look at who he is sharing the EU stage with.

From the heart of the EU institutions there is Jose Manuel Barroso, on his way out as European Commission President. Change-with-the-wind pragmatic and making policy from the backfoot, he is likely to be remembered as presiding over a commission that slid down the institutional hierarchy.

Alongside him, in irascible tandem, is Herman Van Rompuy - an apologetic, haiku-spouting persona more comfortable outside the spotlight than in it. His main job has been to make what Berlin wants palatable for everyone else.

Which brings us to Europe's de facto leader German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Pushed into the limelight by the economic crisis, Merkel has shaped the EU's austerity-filled response to it. As the crisis has worn on, both the chancellor herself as well as everyone else has got oddly inured to the set-up. It's not a healthy situation for anyone (the latest deal whereby Berlin essentially nominated the next EP president as part of her governing coalition's balance of power was a case in point).

Germany's relative power used to be counterbalanced and hidden by France. Now Paris has all but disappeared from the scene. President Francois Hollande has become a side player, hobbled by terrible approval ratings, a stagnant economy and the far-right's win in the EU elections.

Of the other major countries in the EU, Spain's Mariano Rajoy has failed to make an impression while Poland's Donald Tusk, although making a name for himself as the EU's foremost proponent of energy union, is equally undynamic.

Meanwhile, the UK's David Cameron, in thrall to the hardcore eurosceptic element of his Conservative Party, hollers for reform but fails to spell out what "reform" means. The only certain element being that - whatever it is - it won't satisfy his party.

Awaiting us in autumn is Jean-Claude Juncker, who, whatever about his qualifications for the post as EU commission president, simply looks tired after a lifetime in politics.

Renzi is trying to change the narrative. He wants softer fiscal rules. He reminds that there is also a "growth part" to the stability pact. He told his own parliament that the EU is like a "boring old aunt" constantly nagging away.

His power should not be exaggerated. He is just one leader. And his political weight both at home, and especially abroad, lies with how much of his promised reforms he can achieve.

Still he reminds us what is missing from Europe and its leaders - verve, skill and self-confidence.

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