Matteo Renzi, the prime minister of Italy who took the revolving presidency of the European Union this week, seems to be the sort of man that Napoleon was referring to when he reputedly said that the key qualification he sought in recruiting a general was good luck.
Renzi become prime minister without even needing to win an election because Silvio Berlusconi and all other rivals self-destructed. He took power just after Italy passed the lowest ebb of its economic fortunes. In May, he was rewarded for his good fortune by Italy’s voters, who anointed him with a strong democratic mandate in the same European elections that discredited almost all Europe’s other national leaders. Now he is taking the helm in Europe, as an economic recovery is starting and the European Central Bank is swinging decisively in support of growth.
But even a politician as lucky as Renzi could not have counted on his latest and most unexpected windfall: the unintended consequence of last week’s failed campaign by British Prime Minister David Cameron to stop the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission.
Analysis of Cameron’s crushing defeat in the 26-to-2 vote by Europe’s national leaders to appoint Juncker has focused on its implications for British politics and for Britain’s future in the EU. But this event was actually less significant for Britain than for Europe as a whole, specifically for the Italian EU presidency that started on July 1.
For Cameron and Britain, the embarrassment of losing the Juncker battle was more apparent than real. The outcome was predictable once the British press started smearing Juncker with claims about alleged Nazi parentage. From that moment on, Chancellor Angela Merkel was pressured by German public opinion to give Juncker her unconditional support and secure a near-unanimous coalition of Europe’s leaders to head off Cameron’s attacks.