03/14/2014 11:51 am ET Updated May 14, 2014

Italy's Renzi: Positive Politics Vs. Negative Populism

Laura Lezza via Getty Images

Pierpaolo Barbieri, Advisor, Berggruen Institute's Council For The Future Of Europe.

In "La Grande Bellezza," the best foreign film of 2013 at the recent Academy Awards, a direct heir to Federico Fellini presents us with a numb Italy. It is embodied by a once-celebrated writer who, in the midst of raucous parties and ephemeral women, has long given up on writing; this is an Italy seduced by form but devoid of meaning.

After 20 years of political paralysis, the metaphor is straightforward. It is hard to go several weeks without a new book or study proclaiming the end of "la dolce vita," squeezed between a lack of economic dynamism and the seemingly incomprehensible yet enduring appeal of Silvio Berlusconi.

One possible answer to the Italian conundrum is offered by comedian-turned-populist Beppe Grillo. He likes to talk about debt default and exit from the euro. At a time of deep economic crisis and record youth unemployment, it is wholly unsurprising that such negative populism is popular.

It was striking that "La Grande Bellezza" came up in a televised interview in recent days with Matteo Renzi, Italy's youngest ever prime minister. It was even more striking, however, that Renzi presented the movie in a positive light: to him, the superficially negative message was secondary to the "great beauty" of successful Italian art. What is more, Renzi used the movie to press the case for his ambitious reform agenda.

Renzi's is another answer, radically opposed to Grillo's: Italy's woes are well documented, but the promise of politics less so. Positive politics is the best answer to populism, and that is the key promise of the new reformist Italian premier.

Renzi first became a national figure in 2012, when as mayor of Florence he supported many of the reforms pushed by Italy's technocratic prime minister, Mario Monti, to avoid the worst of the eurozone crisis. The precocious mayor from the center-left Partito Democratico (PD) then argued for "Montismo without Monti": tough choices sold politically and passed as a choice rather than as "imposition from Brussels."

In light of the PD's strong ties with Italy's trade unions -- not least the powerful CGIL -- this was a politically dangerous strategy. Renzi lost his first primary bid for the party leadership. Yet the electorate responded last November, choosing him to lead the party by a landslide and in spite of stalwart union opposition.

This was a choice for positive politics instead of negative populism. Now as prime minister, Renzi has outlined a very ambitious "100 days" of reforms: an essential new electoral reform, a reduction in the cost of politics, fiscal relief for the poorest workers and speeding up the judiciary, as well as boosting education and infrastructure investment.

A strong media presence is an essential part of this strategy, as was evident in a Senate inauguration speech that dared remind its audience that being Italian is worthy of pride. "It's not Mrs. Merkel or President Draghi asking us to be serious about our public debt. It's the respect we owe our children," he said.

Many have criticized a man of the center-left for agreeing the electoral reform with Berlusconi, the now-convicted mortal enemy of the Italian left. Yet only through an agreement with Berlusconi -- still the leader of Italy's largest opposition party, Forza Italia -- can the government deliver an electoral reform. And it will do so in the Chamber this week; the last four governments deemed a new electoral law as essential, but only this one will get it done.

Renzi's next objective will be lowering taxes for Italy's poorest workers and radically reducing the cost of politics. The plan, announced barely 24 hours after the passage of the electoral law on Wednesday, cuts across traditional party lines, courting support from the center-right. It also stands the test of reason: in order to create jobs Italy needs to reduce its famously high fiscal pressure as well as its world famous bureaucracy. Why on earth would tiny Italy need twice as many lawmakers as the United States?

At a time of economic crisis Grillo's Movimento 5 Stelle still rides high. Yet populism in Italy has revealed itself to be no less vacuous than elsewhere in Europe: this government is proposing many of the changes that Grillo claims to espouse. Yet they refuse to vote positively, choosing instead the shelter of perennial opposition. Only two weeks ago, Grillo expelled five senators because they threatened to vote for certain measures with the government; surely that is more reminiscent of old politics authoritarianism than the dawn of internet-based democracy.

In spite of temporary alliances, both Grillo and Berlusconi do well to fear Renzi: at last Italy has a politician that excels at communicating while also delivering reforms that resonate with an electorate eager for change, even if it means some pain. What is more, Rome is actively selling these reforms from the center-left and early in their term. France's François Hollande would do well to emulate the strategy.

As Italy prepares to take over the EU presidency to push a strongly federalist agenda, the rest of Europe should see there is some great beauty left in Italian politics. Just as with its cinema, there is substance behind the form.