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Renzi's Gamble for Smart Europe

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Each semester, one of the 28 EU member states holds the rotating Presidency of the European Union. In the past a very important function, after the Lisbon Treaty, the rotating Presidency has lost much of its power, but it is still a great opportunity for a member state to yield ideas and promote dossiers it cares for.
As customary, at the beginning of each Semester, the Prime Minister heading the Presidency travels to Strasbourg to address the European Parliament and to hold a joint press conference with its President, hereby presenting the program for the six months to come. Normally, a detailed programmatic document is also available with large anticipation.

But nothing is "normal" under Matteo Renzi, the Italian Prime Minister, not even the EU Presidency. To begin with, the Presidency Program was not available until after Renzi's speech (not that they had anything in common); not even the Presidency website was up and running before that. Second, Renzi's participation in the customary joint press conference was cancelled last minute because he wanted to go back to Italy to intervene in a popular TV show, leaving the former President-in-office, the Greek Prime Minister Antoni Samaras, and the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, the task of calming down the upset crowd of international journalists.

The problem is that by all standards Matteo Renzi is a domestic-oriented kind of politician. Foreign policy exists only and insofar it can give him an advantage in the domestic arena. He is brilliant and grasps concepts easily, but details bore him, often leading to mistakes. In his speech to the European Parliament, Renzi defined his as the Telemachus generation -- Ulisse's son who as a young man set sails to look for the father -- apparently forgetting his less-than-clear tragic end. The previous week, talking about the EU Presidency in the Italian Parliament, he defined the EU-ASEAN Summit of Head of State or Government as a meeting with "many prominent Asian people."

Renzi also dislikes advance planning. Much to the desperation of his staff, his agenda is constantly changing according to what he considers the priority of the moment. This hardly comprehends foreign policy, unless there is a handshakes and a photo-op with his idol, Barack Obama. This behavior unfortunately reflects on his young crowd of fellow Ministers, who are constantly deferring him any relevant decision. The immediate consequence at the EU level was that most Italian Ministers were absent from the June Councils of Ministers concluding the Greek Presidency. For people without previous similar experience and not well acquainted with their European colleagues, but who will have to chair such meetings during the forthcoming 6 months, it was definitely not a smart move.

Most of Renzi's speech in Strasbourg -- just like a previous one in the Italian Parliament -- was devoted to a Grand Vision for Europe: starting from the Parthenon and the Coliseum, finishing with selfies: "If Europe was to take a selfie today it would be sad and tired, it is time to change that". An unconventional language to which Eurocrats - or many of his colleagues for the matter - are not used. Yet, Renzi showed to have some clear ideas about what shall be the "smart Europe" of the future.

First, Europe needs flexibility and growth policies to recover from the crises. Italy will not try to derogate from the Maastricht criteria -- unlike Germany did in the past, as Renzi often maliciously recalls -- rather, it will advocate for a more flexible definition of what counts toward a state's public deficit. For instance, expenditures for infrastructures or matching capitals for EU funds shall be defrayed.

Secondly, Southern Europe cannot be alone in dealing with the flood of illegal immigrants. Dealing with illegal immigration from the Southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea also means trying to cure the problem at origin, aka fixing the Middle East mess.

To those objecting him, Renzi does not get tired of implicitly reminding that since his party won the most votes in last May's European Parliament elections, he knows best. In Strasbourg, in his final remarks, he went further, addressing some extremely sharp comments against those countries -- in particularly Germany -- who dare mistrust and criticize Italy, a statement that definitely won him approval among his fellow citizens, but that will hardly make it easier for him to rally support for his ideas among European colleagues.
Such an approach to the EU Presidency, between a grand vision for Europe -- that Europe definitely needs -- and an eye for doing what is best for the domestic audience, is definitely a gamble. It could lead to total disaster. Yet, there is a chance he may succeed, not only because it is in gambles that Renzi scores best, but mainly because he tells the truth when he affirms "if we just have to deal with EU bureaucracy, no thank you, we already have too much of it in Italy!"

Renzi's gamble is to change Europe and to put it "back on google map" and himself on the top of it. Europe definitely needs to get back on the world (and its citizens') map; for that sake, let us hope Renzi will succeed.

Federiga Bindi is the author of "Italy and the EU", Brookings Institution Press, 2011, Washington DC