Challenge for EU is to find its soul, says Renzi

Italian prime minister has been leading a push for greater flexibility in EU budget rules

Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi arrives to the plenary session at European Parliament in Strasbourg to present the programme of the Italian presidency. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi arrives to the plenary session at European Parliament in Strasbourg to present the programme of the Italian presidency. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

 

The European Union must regain people’s “trust and confidence” Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi said yesterday, in a speech to mark the start of Italy’s presidency of the Council of the European Union.

In a wide-ranging address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the Italian prime minister said the challenge of the six-month presidency was not solely about organising a “list of meetings”.

“The real challenge that our continent faces is to find Europe’s soul again, to get back to the real meaning of our being here together.”

“If Europe was to take a selfie what would be the picture?” asked Mr Renzi rhetorically. “A face that is tired, resigned in some cases [...]a bored selfie.”

 

Flexible budgets

Mr Renzi, who has been leading a push for greater flexibility in EU budget rules, argued that Italy contributes more than it takes out of the EU budget, adding that his party was one of the few parties to have topped the polls in the European elections.

 

“We want to respect the rules. We don’t want to change the rules. But you respect the rules by remembering that we all signed together a stability and growth pact. What we’re asking for now is for growth to be a fundamental aspect of European policy.”

But his call for a greater emphasis on growth appeared to be rebuffed by the chair of the European People’s Party (EPP) Manfred Weber, who said that a relaxation of budget rules for big countries such as Italy and France would be unfair on bailout countries who have already implemented strict reforms.

“What do we say to other countries, Spain, Ireland and Greece who have learned their lessons, have made sacrifices. Just because of a few G7 members, the heavy hitters [...]There are rules for a reason and there shouldn’t be a difference between large countries and small countries in the EU.”

Updating the parliament on the outcome of last week’s EU summit, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy said one of the priorities of the next five years was the creation of “stronger economies with more jobs”.

“[This] means finding the right balance between fiscal discipline and the need to support growth – something which the in-built flexibility of our Stability and Growth Pact rules allow.”

Outgoing European Commission president José Manuel Barroso reminded Mr Renzi of the support given to Italy by Europe when the country was close to economic collapse at the height of the euro zone crisis.

“Italy one of the biggest economies in Europe, was very close to financial disaster, and at the time it was possible to avoid that disaster. I’m proud that the European Commission always stood behind Italy. [It shows] out commitment and confidence in Italy.”

 

Budget targets

Italy, which has had four prime ministers since 2011, has struggled to meet budget targets set by Brussels, with its debt to GDP ratio one of the highest in the EU.

 

Earlier Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras, handing over the rotating presidency to Italy, said the Hellenic presidency had proven that the union could work together at times of crisis. “Some were predicting the so called Grexit, the idea that Greece should exit the euro. Some were predicting that the euro itself would not make it either. We proved them wrong. Europe worked.”

Mr Renzi identified migration as one of the key priorities of the Italian presidency, calling for a common European asylum policy.

He also said a Europe without the United Kingdom “would be less Europe, less itself”, and urged the EU to listen to different perspectives. “These different positions need to be brought together to a position of unity.”