21st Mar 2018


Can Renzi succeed where others have failed?

  • The Renzi government has a strong sense that the general political tide is turning in its favour. (Photo: Ed Yourdon)

Debt ‘flexibility’ has been flitting in and out of the EU’s lexicon for some time now.

But Italy’s PM Matteo Renzi, a social democrat, whose party in the May European election won the most decisive victory of any Italian party since the 1950s, has put it firmly back on the table.

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He wants the EU’s budgetary rules to be interpreted more loosely– so that money spent for ‘growth-enhancing’ purposes does not count as part of the budget deficit.

At a summit at the end of June, EU leaders agreed both in their conclusions and in the ‘strategic agenda’ for the coming five years that they should make “best use” of the flexibility in the Stability and Growth Pact. Crucially, however, the rules were to remain the same.

Nevertheless Italian officials have been holding this up as a significant blow-to-austerity victory.

The Renzi government has a strong sense that the general political tide is turning in its favour.

In the Italian capital, they like to point out that while the centre-right CSU and CDU (German Chancellor Merkel’s party) combined received 10 million votes in the May EU election, Renzi’s party received one million more votes.

But we have been here before.

French leader Francois Hollande once made great promises on forging a growth pact – to little avail. Spain’s Mariano Rajoy was also bullish about bending the rules when he came to power, only to then fall in line. Mario Monti, Italy’s short-term caretaker leader in 2011/2012, also failed to ease the fiscal rules. They all faced an implacable Berlin.

Meanwhile Renzi’s government has been coy about what exactly it understands by ‘flexibility’.

One Italian source said that Europe needs to learn “how to assess the impact of structural reforms to measure the time needed, the spillover effects and the impact on the budget”.

“If you implement a labour market reform, the benefits will materialise not next year but three years from now,” the contact continued, noting, pointedly that Germany “is profiting from the reform put in place ten years ago”.

However, until now, Renzi, in power since February, is essentially asking for concessions in return for reform promises. Aside from simplification of the tax system, little has been done.

For Merkel, attuned to an electorate that does not want to give anything to southern countries ‘for free’, this is too much talk and too little implementation.

This will also influence the European Commission, which has discretionary powers when it comes to implementing fiscal rules. Its president as well as current economics commissioner have so far given short thrift to the statements coming from Rome.

Renzi gives the impression of one who has enjoyed the quick short fight to the top of Italian politics. Now he has to prove he can deliver on the longterm fight too.

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