Renzi yet to translate rhetoric into action as Italy prepares to take on EU presidency

Analysis: Italy’s prime minister faces scepticism despite success at EU summit

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi: many of his countrymen remain unconvinced.  Photograph: Reuters/Remo Casilli

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi: many of his countrymen remain unconvinced. Photograph: Reuters/Remo Casilli

Mon, Jun 30, 2014, 01:00

For months he has been the man who talks the talk; but last week in Brussels did centre-left Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi walk the walk?

Just as the British media has tended to see the European Union summit as a humiliation for prime minister David Cameron, so too has the Italian media seen it as a major triumph for Renzi.

“EU – Renzi secures agreement on reform” said La Repubblica. “Renzi whips Europe into shape” said Corriere della Sera. Renzi – yes to Juncker but only if there is a clear document outlining EU strategy” said Il Sole 24 Ore.

Those were just a few of the headlines suggesting Renzi had struck a telling blow, especially with German chancellor Angela Merkel, for “growth” and “flexibility”.

Given his spectacular success at last month’s European elections, in which he returned a remarkable 40.8 per cent winning vote at a moment when nearly all his fellow EU heads of government flopped miserably, it was obvious Renzi went into last week’s summit with his standing greatly increased.

What was perhaps not so certain was that he would emerge from the summit looking stronger, prompting Italian (and other) commentators to suggest

Italy had reassumed its rightful place at the heart of the European debate.

Yet even as Renzi prepares to formally take over the EU’s rotating presidency tomorrow, many of his countrymen remain unconvinced.

In Rome last Saturday, for example, anti-EU demonstrators, including trade unionists and members of hardline leftist party Rifondazione Comunista, burned the EU flag in front of the European Commission office by way of an anti-austerity protest.

In an interview with Rome daily La Repubblica yesterday, former European Commission president and former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi suggested Renzi’s difficulties were about to begin.

“From the personal viewpoint, Renzi came out of the summit much stronger. But now he has got to show that he has an equally strong country behind him and that is a lot harder,” he said.

“Italy’s problems are more about its debt than its deficit, more about actually implementing reforms than about deciding on reforms ... Understandably, Italy’s EU partners will be looking for concrete facts rather than good intentions.”

Given that he took office just four months ago, it is only normal that so far Renzi has realised almost nothing of his ambitious programme of constitutional, institutional and electoral reform.

Until now his government’s major achievements have been limited to an €80 tax bonus for those on lower incomes (a winning electoral move) and to selling off a handful of Italy’s 600,000 state cars on eBay.

The cynic might also add that his greatest political achievement thus far has been the rehabilitation of disgraced, centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi by insisting on making him his major interlocutor in the institutional and electoral reform process.

In his defence, Renzi has always argued that if you want to effect change in today’s Italy you have no option but to talk to the country’s strongest centre-right leader.

With a political consensus not seen since Christian Democrat days, nothing may be impossible for Renzi and his left-right coalition government.

However, all the most recent economic indicators indicate the enormity of his task. In the first three months of 2014 unemployment in Italy touched a 40-year high of 13.6 per cent, youth unemployment (the 15-24 age bracket) rose to 46 per cent and the national debt remained at about €2.1 trillion, with a debt- to-GDP ratio of 136 per cent.

In the meantime, Abu Dhabi-based airline Etihad confirmed last week it will buy a 49 per cent stake in “family jewel” Alitalia for a reported €600 million.

Worse still, in recent months corruption scandals involving both the Milan Expo 2015 and Venice’s multibillion-euro flood protection programme suggest that if Renzi really wants to change Italy he has plenty to do.

In that context, it is hard to understand just why one of the current items in his senate reform package is reportedly a measure that would guarantee immunity from prosecution for the members of the new (non-elected) senate.

Does that measure form part of his reform pact with Berlusconi?

As for his EU presidency, Renzi is reported to have his eyes on a five-year €240- million-a-year complex investment project that relies heavily on the support of French president François Hollande.

If he pulled that one off, not to mention his programme of domestic reform, then he would most certainly have walked the walk. As of now, though, the jury is out.

 

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