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17th Jan 2022

Feature

Renzi's chance to act like a grown-up

  • Renzi says his ideas on Europe go beyond 'sterile complaints' (Photo: Palazzo Chigi)

An EU leaders’ jamboree in Rome on Friday (6 May) to award a Europe prize to Pope Francis will give Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi a chance to show that he has grown up: out with the tantrum-prone upstart, in with the mature statesman.

Since rising to power in 2014, the 41 year-old former mayor of Florence has wavered between generic pro-EU idealism and pointed attacks on Brussels “bureaucrats”, mainly at the expense of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and his entourage.

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  • Renzi (l) recently kissed and made up with Juncker after trading insults for months (Photo: Italian PM office)

Renzi says he is now ready for serious discussions on reviving the European project. His readiness comes at a time when the EU is threatened by the Brexit referendum, rising support for anti EU-parties, economic stagnation and internal border closures in response to massive inflows of migrants.

Juncker, but also German chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council president Donald Tusk and European Parliament president Martin Schulz will pass through Rome for the Charlemagne Prize ceremony at the Vatican.

Renzi is expected to meet all of them. He wrote in an online newsletter on Tuesday: “I want to take this opportunity to relaunch with vigour Italy’s proposals on migration and growth.

“To regain strength and authority, Europe must radically change its economic policy and strategy towards Africa. We are on it, ready to play our part.”

The Italian government has presented two notable reform blueprints since February.

Renzi’s reforms

For the eurozone, Rome has called for more flexibility on deficit-reduction targets and for public investment to stimulate growth. It also called for a single euro finance minister with tax-and-spend powers and bank deposit guarantee and unemployment insurance schemes jointly funded by the 19 members of the currency union.

On migration, Italy has proposed using the controversial deal that the EU signed with Turkey as a template for agreements with other states. In a nutshell, African nations would be offered money - possibly raised by EU bond issuances - in return for tightening border controls and for taking back irregular migrants.

“Until a few weeks ago we were accused of being too whiny towards Europe,” Renzi said in a previous newsletter on 27 April.

“But in the recent few weeks, we have started to submit full documents to our colleagues’ attention, to show that ours are alternative proposals, not sterile complaints.”

The calculation in Rome is that the EU’s most powerful member, Germany, can be pushed to agree to at least some of the reforms.

The figuring is based on Renzi’s supposedly growing authority despite the Germany’s public hostility to any new initiative that involves German taxpayers’ cash.

New status

Citing his government’s domestic reform record, Renzi likes to boast that Italy has matured from problem child to EU class leader, filling the voids left by France, Britain and Spain.

France is distracted by the rise of Marine Le Pen’s National Front. The UK is preoccupied with its EU membership referendum and Spain is locked in an internal political stalemate, with new elections due.

Sandro Gozi, the Italian government's EU affairs chief, told the official newspaper of Renzi’s Democratic Party on Saturday: “The balance of power between conservatives and progressives is changing and this also has an effect on European Council dynamics.

“I think that Angela Merkel retains a central position, but we are in a new political phase, and we need Europe to also change rapidly, and this is starting to happen.”

Gozi’s remarks followed an article in British daily The Guardian by economist Anatole Kaletsky which said that: “With luck, a new breed of wily and agile Italian leaders will out-manoeuvre the blundering German dinosaurs, whose outdated rules and doctrines are leading the EU toward extinction.”

The article was gleefully retweeted by Renzi’s aides and spin doctors.

But Renzi’s new image is not quite bullet proof.

Merkel antagonist

Italy remains a highly indebted country at risk of EU censure over its profligacy.

It also has a simmering banking crisis that has already led to a botched rescue of four small lenders and to trouble in two other banks - Banco Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca. They are to be taken care of by a private sector bailout fund agreed last month by Italy’s main financial players.

Renzi is also facing a mid-term poll slump, difficult local elections in June and a referendum battle in October on his constitutional reform proposals.

The reform is to transform Italy’s upper house, the Senate of the Republic, into a “Senate of Regions” filled by local politicians.

It was approved by parliament. But if it is rejected in the referendum, Renzi has pledged to retire from politics, nipping in the bud any ambition he may have to graduate as Europe’s chief Merkel antagonist.

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