THE TURNOVER of Italian governments has been a regular feature of the European political structure for many years. Matteo Renzi’s recent elevation into the Prime Minister’s position has therefore been regarded in some quarters with ennui.
He faces formidable challenges – not least questionable support within the Parliament, and attempting to reform the Italian political and judicial bureaucracy. To add to his agenda, Italy assumes the Presidency of the European Union in July – for a critical six months in which a new Commission will be chosen. However, Renzi’s relative youth and outsider status as the mayor of Florence, rather than a member of Parliament, may give him a much-needed helping hand.
Two weeks ago, I was among a group of business people who met with Renzi on his first visit to London, and last week the lord mayor and I visited Italy for a traditional pre-presidency visit. These meetings left me with a very clear vision for Renzi’s premiership: he is determined to drive through the reforms that Italy needs and is prepared to stake his office on it.
Most political leaders wisely stay clear of reforming the political and judicial structure – turkeys and Christmas coming to mind. But for Italy to experience the growth it needs, the case for reform is clear: a slow decision-making processes and a judicial system that makes contracts difficult to enforce (if they get to court at all) are harming Italy’s competitiveness.
Taking on the establishment requires support, and the single biggest impression I gained from my visit to Italy was that Renzi has this backing, from business leaders, officials and politicians. If he can also mobilise public opinion, then he has every chance of being successful, and putting Italy where it belongs – as one of the small group of large and influential European Union member states.
And from a British perspective, if Renzi can manage to drive through the necessary domestic reforms, he will have credibility at the European level and will be able to play his part in reforming the European Union. Italy has often not been on the same side as Britain on EU issues, but this is an opportunity for our two countries to work together to secure reform from the inside for the benefit of all. This is an approach Renzi, like other European leaders, could sign up to. Working with the new generation of leaders in Europe is one of the most important ways for Britain to achieve its renegotiation goals, and to wield more clout at the decision table.
The remainder of the year will be a critical time for Italy, with real opportunity for both the structural reforms that are so sorely needed, and for Italy to start pulling its weight in the EU. The early signs suggest that Italy has a leader focused on making this happen. Britain should be watching carefully and engaging critically; Italy could be about to become the country to watch in Europe.
Mark Boleat is policy chairman at the City of London Corporation.