BERLIN – Watching Italian soccer fans last month, one might have thought that a World Cup victory was the country’s most important opportunity this year. But it is the government’s performance in the European Union’s rotating presidency, not the Azzurri’s performance in the soccer tournament, that matters most. Indeed, Italy’s six months at the EU’s helm, which began this week, will provide the country with a critical opportunity to reshape its own ossified fundamentals – and to effect real change in Europe.
This admittedly unusual prospect can be credited to Italy’s new prime minister, Matteo Renzi. In just over 100 days in office, the 39-year-old former mayor of Florence has captured his country’s imagination. He has announced a spate of ambitious initiatives – one a month, as promised in his first speech – including sweeping constitutional changes, labor-market reform, and an overhaul of the country’s famously inefficient public administration.
Renzi has also offered austerity-beleaguered citizens short-term palliatives, such as a tax cut that gives an extra €80 ($109) to Italy’s lowest earners. Add to that extraordinary rhetorical talent and a pledge – on which he has largely delivered – to “bulldoze” the political class, and it is no wonder that, in the recent European Parliament election, his Democratic Party secured a remarkable 40.8% of the popular vote – more than any other national party.
Italians, who have long been frustrated by poor governance and a clientelist system, are prone to hail charismatic figures as national saviors. This explains the popular appeal of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo, the stand-up comedian who co-founded the populist Five Star Movement. In fact, critics have been quick to highlight the populist undertones of Renzi’s proclamations, with one, La Repubblica founder Eugenio Scalfari, arguing that the prime minister is merely implementing an agenda that was crafted by his predecessors and commanded by the EU.
To change this perception, Renzi must capitalize on his victory to change the discourse, if not the course, of European politics. So far, he has been making the right noises. He has demanded an easing of the strict budget targets that have become synonymous with German-dictated austerity. He has decried a Europe that saves ailing banks, but not the refugees that arrive at Italy’s southern shores by the thousands. And he has argued that, when it comes to filling top EU positions, skills and experience should outweigh the candidates’ name recognition.
But such statements have yet to coalesce into a coherent pro-European story – not least because, with the exception of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Renzi is the only winning representative of mainstream orthodoxy in a debate bedeviled by xenophobic and “anti-systemic” movements. In this context, Renzi’s observation that voters have given him an “extraordinary responsibility” is wholly accurate.
To meet voters’ expectations, Renzi must work to fill the gaps that have opened in post-crisis Europe. Specifically, he must help to find an alternative to the untenable mantra of “convergence” of policies and standards that has driven European integration – one that acknowledges countries’ divergent approaches to solving problems.
Such an effort would quickly reveal that the real divergence is not between the EU’s northern and southern members, nor between its debtors and creditors. It is within each European country, between the need for a meritocratic administration of public goods – a task with which EU institutions were once entrusted – and citizens’ demands for a greater say in national and European affairs.
In the case of Renzi – a media-savvy maverick – the man is the message. Like many other centrist politicians, he is expounding ideas that are anything but revolutionary; indeed, beneath the sound bites, they are not even particularly creative. But he has framed them with an appeal to opportunity and accountability that is unprecedented, especially in Italian politics.
To escape their current rut, European leaders must follow Renzi’s example, using the populists’ platforms – from social networks to local elections – to regain popular support for a project that is critical for European countries’ collective future. They must endorse Renzi’s “there are no excuses” narrative as the post-crisis equivalent of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s argument that “there is no alternative.”
Sandwiched between Europe’s long summer holidays and Christmas break, the EU presidency actually lasts just over 100 days. If Renzi uses this time as effectively as he has used his first 100 days as Italy’s prime minister, Europe is in store for some much-needed positive change.