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Anti-Merkel mood

Bernd Riegert, Brussels / cmkJuly 3, 2014

For the next six months, Italy holds the EU presidency. It's generally seen as an honorary position, but Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is pursuing his own goals, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

Italiens Premier Matteo Renzi im Europoäischen Parlament 02.07.2014
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Matteo Renzi is an energetic man. Following an internal party coup in February, the social-democratic politician from the provinces was catapulted to Italy's corridors of power. He announced rapid reforms, and promised Italians a revolution after years of apathy. For his efforts, Italian voters rewarded the 39-year-old with a dream outcome in the European elections in May: 40 percent supported his party's politics, a feat achieved by no other ruling party in the EU's other large member states. Bolstered by this support, Renzi now hopes to take the momentum to the European stage.

If he manages to bring some fresh air to Europe during the Italian presidency, it would be a good thing. The European Union desperately needs some fresh air. Shocked by the rightward shift in the EU elections and worn down by the conflict with the British euroskeptics over personnel issues, Europeans are craving leadership and guidance. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has tried to keep the status quo, but Renzi has promised a new style, one that would shake up Europe. He wants to be the "anti-Merkel." And he at least deserves a chance.

But the bar shouldn't be set too high, because the canny former mayor of Florence is primarily pursuing domestic political goals. He wants to prove himself in Italy as a leading figure in Europe, and a true defender of Italian interests. Renzi sees the presidency as an opportunity to change the hated austerity program of the eurozone countries. Italy's political parties have blamed the EU's fiscal consolidation for the country's high unemployment and recession - incorrectly. Italy is suffering mainly because of its grotesquely high debt level, 135 percent of its gross domestic product, and structural problems in government and the business sector.

Deutsche Welle Bernd Riegert
DW's Bernd Riegert

Renzi has initiated the first tender reforms in the labor market and in public administration. Now, he sees it as the EU's duty to give him more time to reduce his country's debt. Flexibility is the key word, when it comes to the EU's Stability and Growth Pact. This, above all, is what Renzi wants to achieve in the next six months. Germany and other contributors to the euro bailout funds have rejected a change in the criteria, but are nonetheless committed to the flexibility outlined in the contracts.

France, Spain, Portugal, Greece and other countries that believe more debt, rather than less, is the recipe for success will follow him. The EU has some pretty tough battles ahead of it, should Renzi actually be serious with his goals. So far, the Italian prime minister has done a lot of talking; for example, by announcing a fundamental reform once a month. Implementation, however, has been less successful. Now, he has introduced a 1,000-day program and pushed reforms back to 2016. The Italian government has recognized that it needs more time for its revolution.

In the context of fiscal frontiers, the EU should grant this extra time, but the margins are tight. Renzi is relying on his charm and his belief that Europe needs Italy. The eurozone's third largest economy is simply "too big to fail." The EU, led by Germany's Merkel, will have to meet Italy at least part of the way.

Strategically, Renzi wants to use the EU presidency as a lever. But as the head of the rotating presidency, he does not have much power or authority. However, he does have the good fortune that his presidency falls at a time when the new European Commission and a new president of the EU Council will be taking up their posts. These two institutions will therefore be more preoccupied with their own affairs, and Renzi could fill the gap with his agenda. And if it goes wrong, he already has a scapegoat: 'La Merkel,' the stubborn chancellor who, in his view, wants to use austerity to bring Italy to its knees.