In Italy, enter the wreckers
Bologna — As of this week, Matteo Renzi is Italy’s third prime minister in a year. He follows Mario Monti (November 2011-April 2013) and Enrico Letta (April 2013-February 2014). At 39, Renzi is absurdly young by Italian standards, where in politics one’s sixties are seen as an apprenticeship period and one’s seventies are the time of full flowering. Renzi is full of reformist plans, as were his predecessors. He has had no national governing experience, but neither did Silvio Berlusconi when he came to the prime minister’s office in 1994.
The new thing about Renzi, nicknamed the rottamatore — the wrecker — is how he wants to change the ways of doing politics, business and administration in Italy. Another, even newer thing, is that so do his competitors.
There is no viable political force in Italy today that is politically conservative. Each of the leaders of the three major political groups says he wants to overturn the settled order. Each excoriates much of what has been the way of doing politics for much of the post-war period and proposes a leap into a new era.
The most remarkable of these leaders is the never-to-be-dismissed Berlusconi. Judged guilty last summer of fraud, sentenced to a year of community work and a six-year ban from parliament, he remains leader of his party, now re-named Forza Italia. And he is still the main force on the right with 67 deputies in each of the two houses of parliament. It seems likely that he will play the card that will most embarrass Renzi: euroskepticism.
Euroskepticism — a distrust in the European Union — has in the past two years soared in EU countries (it has always been high in the UK). In 2007, just before the financial crash, a little more than a quarter of Italians said they didn’t trust the EU. In a Euronews poll last summer that number grew to more than half (53 percent). For months, the newspapers of the right that support Berlusconi and Forza Italia — led by Il Giornale, owned by the Berlusconi family — have portrayed the EU as a malign institution and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a demonic force. Merkel had reportedly conspired with President Giorgio Napolitano to remove Berlusconi from power, so frustrated was she by his refusal to initiate reforms.
Berlusconi and his party tacticians may see the coming European elections as payback time. They may think themselves fools not to take advantage of the apparent majority in Italy who have lost trust in the EU. Already, the Forza Italia representative Susy de Martini is a member of the euroskeptic group in the European parliament.
Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement follows its leader’s dislike of Renzi (a dislike that has been mutual). In his latest blog — the order of the day for the movement’s parliamentarians — Grillo characterizes the new government as being “born in betrayal and lies.”
Grillo has already sought to fill his sails with the euroskeptic wind. Last year he called for a referendum on leaving the euro currency. His basic political position — convenient for an opposition movement and a political child of the Internet — is that anything that a mainstream politician does is an abomination. His poll ratings have slipped a little but remain above 20 percent.
Renzi’s avidity to change his party and thus change Italy has seen him cleave through the leftist leadership of the Democratic Party and engineer a party coup against Letta that forced him to resign from the premiership last week. Renzi has shifted the party program toward a reformist agenda that is neither left nor right, but that views all institutions — the constitution, the electoral system, the judiciary, the labor market, regional and local governments, trade unions, schools and universities — as ripe for reform.
Can he do it? Every conversation, from café counters to university seminars, asks this question; most Italians say no. Some say he is too inexperienced; working on too many fronts with an impossible coalition cabinet that includes the center-right defectors from Forza Italia. Anyway, others say, there’s no money, as the headline in Tuesday’s daily Il Fatto Quotidiano said.
An off-the-record conversation with a parliament insider revealed worries over the quality of the untried ministers. They will, to be sure, be faced with an exhausting exercise governing in a country where industrial production has fallen by 25 percent, growth is a minimal 0.2 percent and public debt is more than 130 percent of GDP and forecast to rise.
The easy pessimism of the café counter, while pardonable, is dispiriting. It is as if a country had decided to opt out of civic responsibility and merely watch the latest performing monkey in parliament do his tricks. Renzi should not have aimed his wrecking ball at Letta, who was doing a quietly efficient job with a poor hand. But he may yet inject some spirit into an anxious country. Failure would be more than an occasion for more schadenfreude. It would be a disaster. Who is left to try?
PHOTO: Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi reacts during a confidence vote at the Senate in Rome February 24, 2014. REUTERS/Remo Casilli