26 June 2014

Is there more to Matteo Renzi than spin?


The young Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has announced that he plans to “change Europe.” This sounds ambitious.

Indeed, going into this week’s crucial Ypres summit he had overtaken Britain’s David Cameron in the race to win over Germany’s Angela Merkel on EU reform, according to Bloomberg. Ian Wishart reports from Brussels:

“Emboldened by the strongest showing of any national leader in European Parliament elections last month, Renzi is using his new-found legitimacy to cajole fellow EU leaders into easing the clamp on spending that was applied during the debt crisis. That means guiding Europe away from German-inspired austerity and toward more fiscal flexibility.”

I wonder. First, just because Renzi is only 39 years old, and more dashing than the average European leader, we should not be blinded to the reality that what he seems to be proposing on the European stage – fiscal flexibility – sounds like another way of saying higher government spending. Reform, it turns out, could mean more debt.

Also, before he tries to fix Europe might it not be a good idea for Renzi to fix Italy properly first, the country whose moribund economy and system of government he was elected to overhaul?

As The Financial Times made clear last month, on that score the new Italian premier is coming under some pressure to deliver. The FT reported that at a conference held by Confindustria, which represents Italian industry, there was concern.

“Captains of industry attending Confindustria’s annual assembly were eager in public to jump on to the Renzi bandwagon. In private however, there were fears of a lack of content, a concern exacerbated by the unwillingness of ministers and their spokesmen to address the issue.

“Renzi is a master of slogans but I worry that this government came to power without a detailed plan. Some of these reforms are just broad-brush ideas that are still evolving,” said one executive at the meeting.

Of course, these are early days and Renzi’s reforms – to the Italian tax system and government machinery – need time to work. But his pronouncements are rather reminscent of Tony Blair’s speechifying, and not in a good way. In the years immediately after he came to power Britain’s Labour leader promised all sorts of stuff which never quite materialised. As the British experience with Blair demonstrates, making speeches declaring oneself a great reformer is much easier than delivering real reform.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX