James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

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Hello (Ciao), Matteo Renzi: Prime Minister of Italy

by James M. Lindsay
March 26, 2014

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi arrives to lead a news conference at Chigi palace in Rome. (Remo Casilli/Courtesy Reuters) Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi arrives to lead a news conference at Chigi palace in Rome. (Remo Casilli/Courtesy Reuters)

When President Barack Obama stops in Rome tomorrow he will be meeting with a politician who can match his own meteoric rise to power: Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi. Last month the thirty-nine-year-old Renzi, the former mayor of Florence, engineered the ouster of Italy’s sitting prime minister, Enrico Letta, and took the job for himself. Renzi’s rise to power was all the more remarkable because he and Letta belonged to the same political party, Italy’s center-left Democratic Party (PD). Renzi was elected the PD’s party secretary only three months ago, and he immediately set his sights on the prime minister’s job. He was a pretty effective insurgent. Letta’s colleagues voted 136 to 16 to oust him, and on February 14, he resigned after less than a year in office. Renzi and his new government were sworn in on February 22.

Now that Renzi occupies the Palazzo Chigi, the prime minister’s official residence, he has to make good on his promise to remake Italy. He faces an uphill climb. Italy’s economy, the world’s ninth largest, has stumbled badly in recent years. It is saddled with excessive government debt, it contracted by nearly 2 percent in real terms in 2013, and unemployment is 12.9 percent. Italians want better days, but Renzi will be hard pressed to deliver them.

The Basics:
Name: Matteo Renzi
Date of Birth: January 11, 1975
Place of Birth: Florence, Italy
Religion: Roman Catholic
Political Party: Partito Democratico (PD)
Marital Status: Married to Agnese Landini, a schoolteacher
Children: Three (Francesco, 13; Emanuele, 11; Ester, 8)
Alma Mater: University of Florence
Political Offices Held: Secretary of the Democratic Party (since December 2013) Mayor of Florence (2009-2013), President of Florence province (2004-2009)
Twitter: @matteorenzi

What Supporters Say:

Renzi faces high expectations. Federico Geremicca, a columnist for La Stampa, put it this way:

The young mayor and party leader knows that he is not just expected to deliver a government but much more. A turnaround. A revolution.

Renzi’s supporters think he can do it, even if he is only thirty-nine and has no parliamentary or national political experience. Paola Subacchi, research director of international economics at Chatham House, says:

The country seems to like him because he’s young, because he’s energetic and because there is this untested assumption that somebody new and young and energetic could really change the country’s fate.

Samuela Settimo, a teacher from Padua who supports Renzi, explains:

I voted for Renzi in the last Democratic Party election because he has innovative ideas about reform (for example, reform of the Senate). Renzi seems to have practical solutions to real problems.

Cashmere entrepreneur Brunello Cucinelli is optimistic that Renzi can institute reform quickly and effectively:

I like his speed of execution, we need this speed. He wants to fight bureaucracy… These new young politicians have given us the confidence to start dreaming again to believe there is a better politics, and a better future for Italy in general.

Many Italians embrace Renzi because he looks to be a viable alternative to the political establishment. Oscar Farinetti, founder of the restaurant chain Eataly, says:

We need someone to get things done instead of this petty theatre of politics that makes me vomit… Matteo is the only person in the frame who can do this.

That doesn’t mean that all members of the political establishment see Renzi as a threat. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the dominant figure in Italian politics for the past two decades, sees Renzi’s youth as a plus for Italy:

I had the pleasure today of meeting a prime minister-designate who is exactly half my age… This seems like a good signal for the renewal of the country.

What Critics Say:

Most Italians don’t like the way Renzi came into power. About two-thirds of Italians say he should have stood for election rather than orchestrating an internal PD rebellion against Letta. Elia Rota, a student in Bergamo, says Renzi is “the future of Italian politics,” but worries:

He’s an innovator, therefore he’s expected to change bureaucracy, make a Job Act and make the reforms that are needed in Italy…However, if he was elected by the country and not by the president of Italy he wouldn’t lose the credibility that he had: he is now behaving like an old Italian politician and this isn’t what Italians want him to do.

Renzi’s youth also hurts him with some voters. Marco Incerti of the Centre for European Policy Studies explains:

There needs to be a political personality capable of negotiating with heads of state and government… Renzi has arrive[d] on the scene. He might be appointed prime minister, with little knowledge of his colleagues, and being little-known by his colleagues. It’s something that does not work in his favour.

Ornella De Zordo, a politician from Florence who opposes Renzi, doubts he can keep all of his promises:

He’s used the slogan “Said, Done!” many times… I would say “Said, But Not Done!” because Matteo Renzi is very good at a communicational level—at making announcements. But when you look at his record, things are very different. He sells himself very well.

Some Italians simply don’t buy what Renzi is selling. Paolo Buscaglia, an industrial consultant in Palermo, is one of them:

Renzi has been given a gift that he does not deserve. Carefully listening to his speeches, it is clear that the old politics has come back to life with a new, young face. He’s a fascinating character. He was the loudest voice in the Democratic Party condemning Berlusconi’s conduct but has since legitimated Berlusconi again by recognising him as the only valid interlocutor to talk about the new electoral law. The astonished voters will remember that. Renzi disappointed many by getting the job of prime minister directly from the hands of the Italian President Napolitano. They won’t mind if his reforms help the country and its economy but unfortunately Italy’s economic renaissance is still far away.

Beppe Grillo, a comedian who leads Italy’s Five-Star Movement, has publicly denounced Renzi for being too inexperienced to be prime minister, calling him “a young old man” and “not credible.”

Stories You Will Hear More About:

Renzi won the game show La Ruota della Fortuna, Italy’s Wheel of Fortune, when he was nineteen.

Renzi has embraced his status as an outsider, framing himself as someone who can challenge the old political establishment.  He has earned the nickname “Il Rottamatore” (The Scrapper), for his plan to “scrap” old Italian politics. However, his lack of experience means that he will need to cultivate political allies in Rome if he wants to succeed in the prime ministership.

Il Rottamatore isn’t the only nickname Italians have given Renzi. He’s also called “Fonzie” for his likeness to the character on Happy Days, a nickname perpetuated by his photoshoot for Chi magazine wearing a white t-shirt and leather jacket. Renzi is known for his casual style and his youthful vibe. The Global Post reports:

With his catchy slogans and savvy use of social media, the informal Renzi is particularly popular among younger voters turned off by old-school politicians. He can often be seen cycling around Florence and prefers jeans, a leather jacket and retro sunglasses to the more formal attire worn by the political elite.

Renzi belonged to a Catholic scouting organization as a teenager, and a fellow scout believes that the movement prepared Renzi for political success:

In that world, content does not matter. What matters is rhetoric, some emotions, motivating a team, a bit of evangelism, sustaining a self-perpetuating organization. It was all very banal and Renzi was the perfect head scout.

Renzi has been compared to both  John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, but he is most often likened to former British prime minister Tony Blair.  Like Blair, Renzi is young, charismatic, and aims to pull his party from the left closer to the center. Blair thinks that Renzi has the “dynamism, creativity and toughness to succeed.”

Renzi has set himself a high bar for success. He has a 100-day plan to for economic and electoral reform. His proposal to revamp Italy’s voting laws passed Italy’s lower house earlier this month. Renzi wants a voting system that favors large political parties and coalitions. The idea is to avoid the sort of political scrambling that followed the uncertain results of the last election. Renzi has begun implementing polices to create jobs and cut taxes, especially for low-income workers. His proposed reforms include reducing taxes on business, improving unemployment benefits, and changing labor laws. Renzi is a long distance runner, and he may find that implementing his ambitious reforms is a marathon and not a sprint. Whether or not the 100-day plan is realistic, 67 percent of Italians are satisfied with it.

In His Own Words:

Renzi describes himself as “hugely ambitious.” He has promised to bring “all the courage, commitment, energy and enthusiasm of which I am capable” to the prime ministership.

Renzi has long been aspiring to become prime minister. When he challenged Democratic Party leadership in 2012, he admitted:

I feel a bit arrogant to want to govern Italy, but then I look back at the governments of the past 20 years and think that we cannot give in. We need some healthy impatience.

The way Renzi came into office does suggest impatience, and he’s certainly shown himself willing to take risks to get what he wants. When Renzi started his challenge to Letta, he said:

You know the emails that I get with the concerned advice: “Matteo, be careful. Matteo, you might get burned.” I understand the sense but if I hadn’t risked anything then today I would still be at the provincial government in Florence.

Yet Renzi acknowledges that he’s not the traditional choice for prime minister. He told the Democratic Party leadership:

We are at a crossroads…I’m asking you to take the road less traveled.

Renzi believes he can change the way people think about politics and bring a sense of hope to Italians:

People are weary and disillusioned…They don’t believe anymore. I believe, and that’s why I do politics – because I still believe.

Overall, Renzi is optimistic about his government. He told reporters in February that “there clearly are the conditions in place to do an excellent job.”

Foreign Policy

With a background that lies almost entirely in local politics, Renzi’s foreign policy views are largely unknown. Italian scholar Michele Di Donato speculates that a Renzi government will produce “few variations to the traditional pattern of Italian foreign policy.”

Renzi would prefer to focus his energies as prime minister on revitalizing Italy’s lagging economy. But given that Italy is a member of the European Union (EU), domestic policy immediately becomes enmeshed in foreign policy. Italy is the fourth largest economy in the EU, but it doesn’t exercise the clout that Germany and France do within the union. Italy assumes the EU presidency in July, which gives Renzi some opportunities to shape the EU agenda. He’ll be looking to make friends with other European leaders. He has had some success already. Angela Merkel invited him to a meeting in Berlin last year.

Renzi is hoping the EU will temporarily waive the rule that requires Italy, like all EU member states, to keep its government deficit to less than 3 percent of the country’s GDP. Back in January Renzi said “If there’s a leadership with a vision, I can’t see a problem with passing the deficit ceiling, although we’d have to have a battle to change the rules.” The EU has warned Renzi, however, that it won’t bend any of its budget rules. Other EU member states will likely be peeved if Italy ignores the 3 percent ceiling, especially if Renzi’s reform plans don’t produce the strong economic growth he envisions. Renzi told Chancellor Merkel early last week that Italy would abide by its deficit limits, and Merkel was “very impressed” by Renzi’s economic plan. However, European officials scoffed when Italy requested budget flexibility on Friday, angering Italians.

Besides looking to maintain good relations with the EU, Renzi will be looking to maintain good relations with Vatican City. Renzi is a Catholic and has a relatively good relationship with the Vatican, although he does support civil rights for gay couples, something which runs contrary to Church doctrine.

Renzi chose Tunisia for his first foreign trip as prime minister.  He told the press there:

The Mediterranean is not the border but the heart of Europe… I chose Tunisia for my first foreign visit as prime minister to show the centrality that Italy attaches to the Mediterranean.

Looking toward the Middle East, Renzi has said that “Israel is a country that is surrounded by organizations that wish its destruction, starting with Iran.” Back in 2012, he called Iran the “mother of all challenges” in the Middle East, not because of its nuclear program but because of political upheaval there. His perspective on the Middle East is a source of relief to some in Italy who support Israel. Nathan Servi, a Jewish Italian from Florence, seems pleasantly surprised:

I don’t really know why, but he has always shown very pro-Israel ideas the few times he talked about foreign policy…It seems we may [get] a European center-left prime minister who doesn’t hate Israel after all.

Renzi’s attitudes toward the United States aren’t well known. He looks to be an ardent admirer of President Obama. He has said that he was “thrilled” to have shaken Obama’s hand at an international meeting of mayors. Renzi also attended the 2012 Democratic National Convention in the United States and spoke highly of the president.

The biggest national security issue on Renzi’s plate right now, though, is Ukraine. Italy joined the United States and every other EU member in condemning Russia’s land grab in Crimea. But Renzi is leery that efforts to punish Moscow will also punish Italy, which gets 31 percent of its natural gas from Russia.  When the G-7 announced earlier this month that it would suspend preparations for the Sochi summit this summer, Italian officials said that for Italy, this was a “last-resort move, to be assessed based on developments on the ground.” Italy supported the sanctions that the EU subsequently imposed on Moscow, but it is not itching to go any further. All signs suggest, however, that Renzi will defer to Chancellor Merkel on how far to go as Germany also depends heavily on Russia for its energy imports.

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