Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

Let us Hope Renzi will Become an Italian Blair
FT - December 9, 2013

M​
aurice Saatchi, the great adman and Tory peer, said that Tony Blair’s election victory in Britain in 1997 could be explained by his capture of a single word: new. That is also going to be the aim of the Blair-admirer that the Partito Democratico, Italy’s version of the Labour party, elected on Sunday by a landslide as its secretary-general: Matteo Renzi, the 38-year-old mayor of Florence. Whatever you think of Mr Blair, Mr Renzi’s election is a rare moment of hope for Italy, and indeed for Europe.

What Italy, which has been the worst-performing economy among the Group of Seven rich countries for the past 15 years, has long needed has been four words beloved of Lord Saatchi’s advertising copywriters: new, young, change and hope. For far too long consideration of il Bel Paese has instead been dominated by a certain 77-year-old now associated with bunga-bunga and tax fraud, Silvio Berlusconi, but also by other gerontocrats and blockers of change.

A year ago, when Mario Monti’s government of technocrats was coming wearily to its close and general elections loomed, the PD were Mr Monti’s presumed successors and the country’s next renovators. Mr Monti himself was associated with tax rises and joyless sacrifice, while Mr Berlusconi was assumed to be so discredited by his failures as prime minister over eight of the previous 11 years that he stood no chance.

But the PD flunked it, opting to be led by old party apparatchiks rather than Mr Renzi or anyone else new, and standing for the past, not the future. So the beneficiary in February’s elections was Beppe Grillo’s populist, anti-politics, anti-euro insurgent party, the Five Star Movement, which grabbed 25 per cent of the vote, and Mr Berlusconi, who staged an unlikely comeback by promising tax cuts.

The big loser from the resulting stalemate was Italy. And the potential long-term victim was Europe.

A year later the PD has finally woken up and smelt the espresso, with an impressive 68 per cent of the 3m who voted in the party’s primaries opting for Mr Renzi. Even so, it would be premature to garland him as Italy’s new messiah. His experience amounts to a mere nine years at the top of Florentine politics, four of them as his city’s mayor. When Mr Blair became Labour leader in 1994 (at the age of 41), he too was inexperienced but he had at least been blooded in national politics. Mr Renzi has hitherto been tested only in the national media. He still has a lot to prove.

In fact, if an Italian is minded to smear him, and plenty especially on the left are prone to do so, they come up with two accusations. The first is that he is superficial, lightweight, a substance-free zone. The second is that he reminds them not of Mr Blair, for like many foreigners they think better of Mr Blair than do we Brits, but rather of Mr Berlusconi. 

The first of those accusations is serious and not without cause: Mr Renzi has been carefully evasive about detailed policies and has not surrounded himself by the sort of serious advisers that might offer a clue about what he might actually do. The second, however, is meant as an insult but is really a compliment: it means that he is a great communicator, one who appears to strike a chord with ordinary people.

This is an invaluable asset, especially at a time of disillusionment and alienation. If Europe is to escape from its depression and save the euro and the EU, it needs politicians who can speak a language both of hope and of liberalism, selling reform as a source of opportunity and renovation, one that retains social justice even while reinventing it.

Austerity is not a winning or sustainable message, as next May’s European Parliament elections will show, all over the continent. Europe instead needs young, liberal enthusers, which is what Mr Renzi has represented, so far.

For Mr Blair, the party was a bigger problem than the country. For Mr Renzi, the party will be tough too, but for the moment it needs him more than he needs it. His bigger challenge will be to look substantial, serious and statesmanlike.
For the key difference between his situation and Mr Blair’s is that while Labour was in opposition in 1994, Renzi’s own PD is currently leading Italy’s not-very-grand coalition government, with Enrico Letta, his less charismatic but still respected and reformist colleague, sitting there as prime minister.

What Mr Renzi now needs to do is to reach out respectfully to Mr Letta, sorting out with him an agenda for the reforms that Italy can and should carry out before it holds its next election, in 2014 or 2015. For a Florentine to co-operate with a Pisan has always been tricky.

More seriously, to pick a fight with his own colleague in order to force faster new elections would be to risk political suicide. Mr Renzi needs to be patient. That must be his hope, if he is to be Italy’s.


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