Matteo Renzi is on fire. Not Brexit, not the uncertainty after the Spanish elections, maybe not even the inconsiderate policies of Poland’s new populist government are catching as much attention of the Brussels-crowd as the repeated quarrels that Matteo Renzi has engaged in with President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and his head of cabinet Martin Selmayr. Political analysts are excited, and write about the populist turn of the Italian Prime Minister. Some fear that Renzi’s uprising might make Italy as much of a pariah in Rue de la Loi as Greece, while many think that Renzi’s moves are eventually aimed at eluding the European Commission’s strict financial requirements; most agree by saying that Renzi’s European quarrels are an external reflex of domestic politics. Some analysts are convinced that in essence Renzi’s requests are right, but almost everybody agrees that Renzi’s strategy and (lack of) style has been dreadful.
What is sure is that Renzi has fired up debate in Brussels, and finally gets some discussion going about an otherwise fully supported Commission. And what is more: this is actually a good thing.
For years the European Commission has pursued a policy of austerity all over Europe – with the precious support of Europe’s most powerful politician, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and of a majority of governments all over Europe. Indeed, the European Council has long been little more than an EPP-meeting club, with an outright majority of European leaders embracing Barroso and Juncker’s cabinets’ policies, and little room for alternative pro-growth ideas. When Greece turned left they were seen as too radical, and politically too weak to make a real change to the discourse in Europe , and the other potential European leader of the centre-left political spectrum, President François Hollande, soon proved to be politically weak and ideologically unstable.
Now the wind seems to be changing. In the European Council there are as many social democratic as Christian democratic heads of government represented – and the balance will turn in the S&D’s favor if the Partido Popular will not be able to maintain La Moncloa. Yet, this quiet political shift in Europe still needs to find a leader, a face to counterbalance the Merkel-Juncker consensus, and for several reasons of political strength and opportunity all potential leaders such as Hollande, Tsipras and Schultz have not been able to fulfill this role. Matteo Renzi is in fact the only leader that the European left can possibly go for.
Renzi is still a relatively homo novo in Brussels, despite being Italy’s PM for two years already. Renzi legitimated his position through the landslide victory at the 2014 European elections, which left his Partito Democratico with the second biggest delegation in the European Parliament only after Merkel’s CDU/CSU, even if he came to power without being directly elected. Renzi is a young leader with a strong on-the-ground background, but has a fine strategic insight that helped him climbing up the ranks of the otherwise fossilized Italian left-wing party and positioning his protégés in many crucial positions for Europe’s decision making. He is, alongside Angela Merkel, the only European leader whose party is still comfortably leading opinion polls. In short, Renzi has political capital.
Despite lacking the typical Brussels savoir-faire, his abrupt methods have the advantage of shacking up the politics of Europe, showing that alternatives exist to the current Commission policies. In fact, a major achievement of Renzi needs to be the politicization of the Commission – something alien to many Europhiles – but also something necessary to strengthen the whole European Union and its support among citizens. There is a need to openly discuss the Commission’s policies and proposals, and the European parties other than the EPP, which are in fact often alternative to the Commission policies, should be able to criticize and propose alternatives. Only by creating a frank debate at the European level the EU can show its citizens that the Commission is not a monolithic totem, and that policies are the natural result of a political dialectic. Matteo Renzi has opened fire on the Merkel-consensus, and has shown that he can become that leader that proposes an alternative for Europe.
Now Renzi needs to have the courage to play his European card, and to show that he has the strength to change Europe – and hereby Italy, by playing in Brussels and not only in Rome. Today Renzi is meeting Merkel. Most likely the two will come out with a joint statement on peace and prosperity; I hope this will be the result of an open debate of two political leaders with alternative ideas, who are not shy of showing what they stand for, what they agree on, but also what they disagree on.
Europe needs leadership, and two alternative leaders to choose from and who create a virtuous dialectic are obviously better than one.
Robert Zielonka (24) is a 2015 Graduate of Democracy
Disclaimer: This Post reflects solely the author’s opinion and do not represent the platform as a whole