Matteo Renzi’s office, in a 16th-century Roman palazzo opposite Italy’s senate, is incongruously decorated with mementos of his time as a jet-setting young statesman.
Here, a handwritten letter from Barack Obama; over there, a California state flag and a collection of Bob Dylan lyrics. And on a table is a model of an Airbus A340-500 emblazoned with Repubblica Italiana – the aircraft in which Renzi toured the globe during his three years as Italy's youngest prime minister, spreading a message that he would overhaul the county's sclerotic political system and stagnant economy.
Renzi tried – and failed. An anti-establishment coalition led by the Five Star Movement swept to power last year. Having lampooned the aircraft as "Air Force Renzi", Luigi Di Maio, Five Star's leader, posted a triumphant social media video of himself on board, ridiculing its cost and pledging to decommission it.
The symbolism was clear: the populists were in the cockpit of Italian politics and Renzi’s mainstream centre-left had been grounded.
Across Europe, the fear of many in the same centre-left political camp is that they will soon suffer the same fate – ousted in a populist uprising when EU voters go to the polls in May to select a new European Parliament. Renzi turned his Democratic Party (PD) into its biggest group in 2014. But the PD was destroyed by its experience of having to enforce domestic austerity and is struggling with an identity crisis amid public indifference.
‘Death of Europe’
Even as he admits to being hated by many in his party, Renzi – still only 44 and now a senator – argues that populist politicians such as Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League, may burn out as quickly as they rose.
"I think the news of the death of Europe at the hand of populism has been greatly exaggerated," he told the Financial Times in an interview. "It is very easy to be populist when you are in opposition. But when you get into government reality becomes your enemy. Populists may have been able to beat traditional parties once, but eventually reality will beat the populists."
The man who Renzi thinks will triumph over Salvini, and his allies such as France's Marine Le Pen, is Emmanuel Macron. Renzi and the French president have often been compared for their youth and reformist zeal, as well as their centralised and divisive political styles.
"Five years ago we had a totally different situation. [Angela] Merkel was unbelievably strong in 2014. Today Merkel is the weakest she has been in 15 years, Theresa May is struggling with Brexit and the UK will be out of the EU, [Pedro] Sánchez in Spain lost the budget vote [and has called an election for April]. Italy has its current government. There is only one country left, and that is France. Emmanuel Macron will be the leader, the kingmaker for the next five years."
But does he worry that his fate in Italy – he resigned after a failed referendum on constitutional reform in 2016 – could await Macron?
“No country is identical to another. Macron is a president for five years in a country with strong institutions. I was a prime minister for three years fighting day by day to maintain the job, and at the same time give a vision for Italy,” he said. “I am not worried for Emmanuel, he is a good guy and a leader with a vision.”
Renzi remains one of Italy’s most recognisable politicians but his country’s political winds are against him.
The Five Star-League coalition, while unstable, enjoys huge support, while his Democratic Party shows signs of a shift to the left, leaving his centrist agenda in the wilderness. The party will soon appoint a new secretary, widely expected to be Nicola Zingaretti, the left-leaning president of the Lazio region.
Renzi was speaking before his parents were placed under house arrest in Florence this week, accused of fraudulent business activities – underlining his fraught position in Italian politics. “If I hadn’t entered politics, my family would not have been buried under this mud,” Renzi said in a statement after their arrest.
Abroad, Renzi judges that Italy has lost credibility. This month Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, was attacked in the European Parliament as a "puppet" of Di Maio and Salvini. "It is very sad to see the Italian profile abroad returning to how it was seven years ago with Berlusconi," he said.
He is similarly exasperated by the recent diplomatic crisis between Paris and Rome, which saw the French ambassador recalled after Di Maio provocatively went to France to meet "gilets jaunes" protesters.
Advocate of globalisation
“The approach of the Italian government has been stupid,” he said, banging the table for emphasis. “We have more to lose than France by destroying the relationship. It is a mistake.”
Renzi remains a staunch advocate of globalisation, calling it “the most important opportunity we have . . . This is true for Italy, a small country which can spread our quality around the world, but also for everyone.”
In a book this month, Renzi said Europe needed stronger leaders, and that Angela Merkel would be the perfect president of the European Council once her time as German chancellor ended. Few in Germany believe Merkel would be interested.
By praising leaders like Merkel, who are on their way out, and invoking political idols such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, is he proposing an outdated politics that cannot deal with today's less cohesive, more fearful Europe?
“I use the past, I respect the past, but I am not interested in returning to the time of Clinton,” he retorts. “I think political competence and quality will be cool again in the future, so I don’t think populism has a good future. But this doesn’t mean we will go back to traditional parties, no. We will have a new way, a third way.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019
Matteo Renzi: the “Demolition Man”
1975: born in Florence
2009: Elected mayor of Florence for Democratic Party (PD), where he gains reputation as combative reformer
2013-2014: Becomes PD general secretary then ousts Enrico Letta to become Italy's youngest prime minister
2014-2015: Reform programme earns him "Demolition Man" moniker, with changes to Italy's labour market, same sex-marriage and state-owned companies
2016: Loses referendum on reform of constitution and electoral system. Resigns as PM
2018: Resigns as PD secretary general after party comes third in general election.