Matteo Renzi: Italy's Tony Blair?

Youth unemployment has gone past 40 percent in Italy. Families have been raiding their savings and are near despair. Italians might well like a man with a plan

Italy's Tony Blair?
Tim Hedges
On 18 January 2014 20:49

The ability of Italian politics to be not quite what it seems is having a renaissance at the moment. There are five major political leaders, three of whom, Berlusconi, Renzi and Grillo, are outside parliament.

In the opinion polls the leader is Silvio Berlusconi, but of course they are about an election now involving the political groupings at the time of the last election, eleven months ago, which is a very long time indeed here. Everything could be different now.

The man everyone is talking about is Matteo Renzi, who seems to have acquired the title of Italy’s Tony Blair. He has probably encouraged this: like Blair he is young and telegenic and does not feel bound by the traditional belief-set of his home on the left.

Many in Italy recall that Blair was electorally successful, whilst in Britain many see him in retrospect as an empty vessel, who often felt it enough to repeat the words ‘change’ and ‘reform’ without specifying what the proposed changes were to be, as if these two notions were desirable ends in themselves. Renzi does that, too.

He dreams of being the efficient electoral machine that Blair was; he has already started to talk about stable 20 year government (to put this into perspective only one government since the war has run its full five year term). And Renzi knows that Blair picked his battles carefully, often backing down so as not to upset a crucial political interest.

At present Renzi des not have a seat in either house of parliament. He is still mayor of Florence, but leader of the centre left Partito Democratico, one of whose members, Enrico Letta, heads the fragile coalition government.

Renzi’s task is to keep the pressure on Letta without looking as if he is attempting a political upheaval for personal gain. If he did that and then lost he would sink without trace.

Renzi wants an election, without being seen to cause it, and for that he needs a new electoral law, the previous one having been condemned by the Constitutional Court. To this end he is negotiating with the various party leaders, including Silvio Berlusconi, which has outraged senior figures on the left.

However, he is right to do this: as well as commanding a substantial chunk of votes in both houses, Silvio wants an election, too. They are Machiavellian allies.

So Renzi has said that if the Government is successful it deserves to survive. And he has published a set of plans which he calls the ‘Jobs Act’, presumably intended to judge Letta’s performance. These include a state-sponsored push for successful industries such as design, tourism and so on; modest reductions in payroll taxes; a reduction in bureaucracy and regulation (good luck with that); and for the first time an unemployment benefit.

This is a direct threat to Prime Minister Letta: if he fails to act, and preferably along the lines of the Renzi plan, there will be an election.

But there is little that Letta can do. His coalition is unmanageable, consisting as it does of both ex-Berlusconi right-wingers and hard left former communists. He is reduced to public optimism while delivering little.

His finance minister, the unelected ‘meritocrat’ Fabrizio Saccomanni, seems to see a recovery under every stone. Recently Letta promised a new beginning for 2014, a new urgency, but the deficit is creeping back past the 3 percent threshold which would return Italy to the ‘special measures’ system in Brussels.

And talk in the papers and in the bars is that nothing is happening. The projections are for Italy’s output to bounce along the bottom for a year or two. People expect little from promises of new jobs. Youth unemployment has gone past 40 percent. Families have been raiding their savings and are near despair.

They might well like a man with a plan.

Incidentally, all the rage in Rome at the moment are Silvio Berlusconi motorcycle helmets, which look just like the great man’s head. Very suitable for, say, a well-known figure who wants to arrive for an amorous tryst by scooter.

No one would be at all surprised if they thought it was Silvio visiting a young woman. 

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

blog comments powered by Disqus