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.