Two years ago, Italy's prime minister Matteo Renzi made a dramatic entrance on to the European scene, seizing power in a cynical palace putsch. Despite that unorthodox entrance, he was, by and large, favourably received by Italian and European public opinion.
Then 39 years old, dynamic, with a prodigious gift of the gab and an ability to use Twitter to great effect, Renzi was seen by Italians and Europeans alike as a breath of badly needed fresh air in the Italian political firmament. At first glance, the former mayor of Florence looked like the antithesis of the corrupt, croney-ridden, often Mafia-infested, politics that have dominated post-war Italy.
Renzi arrived in power, essentially on the back of one inspired soundbite rather than any substantial track record. That soundbite, rottamazione ("to the scrapheap") was aimed at just about the entire political class that had preceded him, with the promise being that in the name of a new, brighter Italy all the old lags would be thrown on that very scrapheap.
In an article in The Guardian, Renzi proudly summed up his achievements, saying Italy is living through "historic times" of far-reaching reform, including that of the senate, adding: "We can see in these [reform] measures the natural conclusion of a process that, in the space of 22 months, has included transforming the labour market, changing the voting system, cutting taxes while reducing the deficit, reducing delays in the civil justice system (although more needs to be done), battling the red tape of bureaucracy, and investing in education and research."
All in all, it sounds hunky dory, but is any meaningful change about to happen in Italy? Time will tell but the first observation worth making is that Renzi is himself a victim (or indeed a beneficiary) of the corrupt old ways of Italian politics in that he is the third consecutive, non-elected prime minister to hold office. The last time an Italian prime minister was the expression of the ballot box came with the election of tycoon
in 2008, eight years ago. Unelected, Renzi moved straight from the office of mayor of Florence to prime minister.
He has said that if his extensive reform package is rejected in a referendum next autumn, he will resign. That may be but, for now, the least one can say is that his reforms are not entirely convincing.
Take the senate. There was a good case for arguing Italy did not need a bicameral system, with both houses having identical powers of veto, greatly slowing up the legislative process. Renzi’s reforms end this “perfect bicameralism”, eliminating the senate from the legislative process.
Sounds good yet the senate itself survives, becoming a parliament of locally elected regional councillors, while the house retains a legislative say in constitutional and other matters. It looks like a good thing that the new house will have 100 members as opposed to 315 but it is less encouraging that those 100 will be chosen from arguably the most corrupt political bodies in today’s Italy, namely regional councils.
As for Renzi’s controversial labour reform, the Jobs Act, the jury is still out. This legislation eased firing restrictions for large companies, while offering generous fiscal incentives for firms that hired permanent workers on new, less protected terms. Renzi says he created 400,000 jobs in the last year, yet trade unionists and economists argue the real number is lower and comes at a high price.
Renzi proudly claims his reforms are bearing fruit, with unemployment down to 11.5 per cent (from 12.7 per cent when he took office) and with the economy having grown 0.8 per cent in 2015 and scheduled to grow by 1.4 per cent in 2016, and that after three consecutive years of a contracting GDP.
But trade union leader Susanna Camusso is just one of many who argue the apparent "recovery" is linked not so much to Renzi reforms as to external factors such as the falling price of oil and the weaker euro.
The Renzi style of government, at times, seems based more on the photo-op, the clever soundbite, the apt tweet and the monologue news conference rather than a substantial analysis of complex government issues. This might work in Italy but in Europe it prompted one senior eurocrat to ask if Renzi has "any adults" among his closest advisers, given the simplistic nature of his approach to complex questions such as flexibility, migration and bank regulation.
And last month Martin Selmayr, chief of cabinet to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, complained the commission found it hard to identify an "interlocutor" in the Renzi government. That spat soon settled because senior figures in Brussels as well as elsewhere have concluded that, whatever the shortcomings of Renzi, the alternative would be much more worrying.
A majority of Italian media seem to share those worries, with mainstream news organisations such as daily La Repubblica, Sky Italia and state broadcaster RAI giving "Matteo" patriotic coverage straight out of the Istituto Luce in Mussolini's time.
Meanwhile, there are signs the “demolition” man, or those in his inner Florentine circle, may be involved in old-style, nod-and-a-wink Italian politics. Recently, parliament’s Secret Services Commission expressed its concern that Renzi wanted to make old friend
head of national cyber security, despite his lack of a track record.
Also, a banking scandal in Renzi's Tuscan backyard may cause trouble because one bank, Banca Etruria, was administered by the father and brother of his reforms minister, Maria Elena Boschi. Worse still, Flavio Carboni (84) had a part in this story. Carboni was once a member of P2, an associate of Licio Gelli and one of that small circle which accompanied Roberto Calvi of Banco Ambrosiano fame on his last ill-fated journey to London. Sounds more like scrapbook than scrapheap, really.