Renzi Viewed from Abroad

10.12.13 Publication:

Outside Italy, the news is shocking. But in a good way, you understand. To foreign observers, the election of Matteo Renzi brings the shock realization that Italian politics does not only consist of battles between the too-lively Silvio Berlusconi and the duller but more respectable figures of Mario Monti and Enrico Letta. There is at last a new face to focus on, and he is young and comes from a city they have all heard of.

Of course, it won’t take long for outsiders to understand that Renzi’s face, even at 38 years old, is not really new in Italian politics. And soon they will begin also to understand that the logic of the situation is less comfortable and reassuring than they first thought.

Italian politics, they might soon discover, is not now a battle between the young, reformist Renzi and a stubborn old group of dinosaurs. It is a battle between the young, reformist Renzi and the only-slightly-older, but also reformist, Enrico Letta. And, if that happens, the fact that Renzi and Letta are leading members of the same political party will make foreign observers truly throw up their hands in despair.

But we should not jump ahead, nor leap to conclusions. For the time being, the news of Renzi’s ascent to the leadership of the PD is undoubtedly good for Italy’s image around the world. And it is a good sign for the whole of Europe too.

It is good for Italy’s image because he represents change, youth, energy and novelty. None of those words have been associated in international minds in recent years, or even recent months, with Italy, unfortunately. While Spain and Greece have been introducing quite dramatic, and quite painful, reforms, Italy has been associated with political paralysis.

The fact that the political paralysis has also co-existed with fiscal virtue, as both President Monti and President Letta have tirelessly pointed out, makes little difference, except perhaps in the Chancellery in Berlin. Italy’s fiscal policy has been virtuous for 20 years. It has been its economy and its politics that have been stuck. So right now, people in other parts of Europe and in America tend to put Italy together with France as the two countries in Europe that are most resistant to change, most stuck in old ways and with old-style politicians.

The rise to international prominence of Renzi could begin to change that image. It is also, however, a good sign for Europe because of the message he delivers and the manner with which he delivers it. Politically, the big problem in many euro-zone countries is that the main message has been about pain, sacrifice and austerity. Hope has been lost. The elections next May for the European Parliament look likely, on current trends, to show a huge vote for populist, extremist parties, mostly anti-European and anti-immigration.

If the euro, and indeed the European Union, are to survive and revive, this message of pain and austerity needs to be replaced by one of hope. The main tool of revival is going to be liberalization in various forms, so politicians need to be able to convince voters that liberalization represents opportunity and renovation, not danger and disruption, and that the strong European principle of social justice can be protected amid this change, usually by reinventing it for modern times.

Since he is only just now about to walk fully on to the stage of national politics, we cannot know whether Matteo Renzi will be able to fulfill this mission. But he stands a better chance of doing so than most. His message has often been too vague, too lacking in substance. Yet it has been a message of hope and of liberation, of change to make life better rather than because change is being demanded by foreigners or some other external forces.

It is the most necessary message of this period in Europe’s history. Now, Renzi will have to combine that message with signs that he is politically mature enough to co-operate with President Letta rather than compete with him.

If he now chooses to compete with a government led by his own party it will be an act of political suicide, combined with a homicide both for Italy and for the euro. For the real opposition at the next election will all be anti-euro and profoundly illiberal. We foreigners are pleased to see the young, exciting Renzi emerge. We do not, however, want Italian politics to become so exciting that the way is opened at the 2014 or 2015 election to the extremists.