Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
Is Italy in the EU game now? Was it out before? The answer to both questions is “not really.” For a long time, Italy was always in, and yet never in.
Italy’s influence in EU decisionmaking is that of a medium-sized power, not of a big country. This has been the case for years, and it will take several Matteo Renzis and a serious revolution in the country’s domestic institutions to change the status quo. The previous two governments had taken serious strides in this direction, but is not clear whether the momentum is still there.
If being back in the game means having Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini named as the EU’s foreign policy chief, then the question is what price Italy will pay for the appointment, which was unconventional by the normal standards of EU horse-trading. It is also unclear whether Mogherini will really be able to influence the decisions that matter—that is, economic policies. Incoming European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker seems to have clear ideas about who is boss.
And what if persistent rumors are true that former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta was a widely supported candidate for the post of president of the European Council? If that is the case, then Italy lost the chance to have an additional key EU position by not pushing Letta’s candidacy, as the country that gets the job of European Council president must still nominate a European commissioner, just as all other member states.
Renzi is charming and a great communicator. Whether there is substance too in Renzi’s Italy, only time will tell.
Marta DassùEditor of Aspenia at the Aspen Institute Italia
How exactly do you define the “EU game”? If the aim of the game is to change the EU’s economic policy, then Italy’s influence is limited.
Thanks to a robust performance in May’s European Parliament elections, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s strength is remarkable. But this does not suffice, and neither does Italy’s holding of the rotating presidency of the EU Council. Much of Renzi’s approval rating will depend on his delivery of an agenda of domestic reforms. In the absence of an economic rebound, any Italian ambition to project influence on an EU scale will remain short-lived. Renzi’s greatest challenge is therefore a domestic one.
At home, Renzi still enjoys strong popular support. Moreover, he is proving capable of keeping both his own Democratic Party and his thin bipartisan parliamentary majority under control. And yet, Renzi suffers from a poor legislative record. Solving this “execution dilemma” is crucial—for Italy and for Europe. The approval of Italy’s “jobs act,” which aims to reform employment law, will be a key test.
On another front, EU foreign policy, Renzi got what he wanted: Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini in charge of EU foreign policy. That is good. Major actors, however, perceive this part of the “EU game” as less relevant than economic issues. This is a mistaken assumption, given the importance of geopolitical risks, and a belief that Mogherini will have to prove wrong.
Silvia FrancesconHead of the Rome office of the European Council on Foreign Relations
The Italy of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi certainly appears to be back in the EU game; that is what recent high-profile events would suggest, at least. But it is one thing to be visible, another to be influential and play a leadership role.
So far, Renzi and Renzi’s Italy (perhaps the first more than the second) have been quite visible in the EU, for two main reasons.
First, the European Parliament elections in May 2014 proved that Italy is not the naughty boy that many claimed it was. Italian voter turnout was one of the highest in Europe. Renzi’s Democratic Party gained an unexpected 41 percent of the vote and now has the biggest delegation of members of parliament in the pan-European Socialist group. And Renzi was one of the few European political leaders to contain the Euroskeptic surge that swept many other EU member states.
Second, Italy obtained the post of EU foreign policy high representative, one of the most visible EU jobs. Securing the appointment of Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini to the position was a personal victory for Renzi, who prevailed against the opposition of several member states.
This is all good news for Italy. However, the real challenge is another one.
Italy has lost much of its influence in recent years due to many factors, especially the country’s weak economic performance. Renzi’s real task is to place Italy at the forefront of the EU. That means implementing reforms at home, something in which both Mario Monti and Enrico Letta—Renzi’s predecessors—failed.
The answer to the question of whether Italy is back in the EU game will become clear only after Rome implements wide-ranging reforms and takes concrete steps to fight tax evasion and corruption. This has all yet to come.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
Yes. Matteo Renzi’s predecessors as prime minister of Italy, Mario Monti and Enrico Letta, managed to repair much of the diplomatic damage caused by Silvio Berlusconi’s hectic final days in office. But they failed to break the austerity choke hold imposed on Italy by Germany.
Renzi, by contrast, is playing an entirely different ball game. Acutely aware—his political instincts are keen—of the raging populist waves, Renzi has raised the ante against European antigrowth rules. He has then mobilized his own base in Italy while garnering support from across the Old Continent.
Will this be enough to mollify German Chancellor Angela Merkel? Not at all; Renzi needs to build a credible dialogue with French President François Hollande, an early lame duck, while maintaining a viable relationship with postcrisis leaders in Spain and Greece. By engaging in conversation with Poland and the Baltics, Rome has a chance to swap its old economic sympathies for fresh geopolitical worries.
Alas, all of Renzi’s political and diplomatic maneuvers, together with his clubbable personality, will not be enough. Italy badly needs reforms, and in the long term, that is the only thing that will sustain the country’s newfound leadership role in Brussels.