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Home Opinion Renzi bets against Brexit
State of the Left - Italy

Renzi bets against Brexit

Francesco Rocchetti - 10 March 2016

The Italian prime minister hopes a vote for Britain to remain part of the EU will enable his country to play a leading role in a wider reform process

Italy has been one of the most active members of the negotiations between the British government and the European council held in Brussels last February, where both Matteo Renzi and Roberto Gualtieri (chair of the European parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee), one of the ‘sherpas’ nominated by the European parliament, played a crucial role.

This is because Renzi and his cabinet know that they could be one of the main beneficiaries if the UK will remain in the EU. The net gains of this possible victory are encapsulated under two main lines: Italian internal politics and Renzi’s European takeover bid.

Since the beginning of 2016, the actual government has been experiencing a period of unprecedented stabilisation and even growth of its support. In addition to that, its main opponent, the Five Star Movement (M5S)went through a stormy situation in which it lost consensus on the ground. This was mainly because of its wavering positions on a number of important issues, which caused a significant misunderstanding between the movement and its voter base. This misalignment was particularly accentuated when M5S decided to vote against the approval of the civil union bill, as an act of political revenge towards Renzi’s Democratic party (PD), thus disappointing thousands of voters.

Despite this favorable situation, Renzi’s fundamental difficulty is the economy. He needs to create a political diversion from a loose economic recovery that still struggles to endure. Moreover, he knows that effective solutions require politically painful actions. This is why Brexit negotiations could represent an opportunity: he is aware that the public opinion and the European institutions will be focused on the United Kingdom and Italy will not be under the spotlight. It could be the right time to take not-so-popular decisions.

On the European level, Brexit represents a valuable opportunity for Renzi to present Italy, for the first time in many years, as being on the constructive side of the negotiation table. The Italian governments that have been in office in the last six years, since the beginning of the financial crisis, have continuously negotiated with the European institutions for additional economic measures designed to revive a flagging economy and give a new impulse to private consumption and investment without worsening the public deficit. Many measures were taken, and they were always perceived by the public opinion as punishment imposed by European institutions. The governments paid heavily in their approval ratings for this dissatisfaction.

In the coming months, as we have already observed in February, Italy will play a pivotal role in the negotiations. The main reasons explaining the sudden centrality of Italy are that Renzi has gained the title of reformist; within the European council and he is now considered one of the most important influencers on the European center left.

Nevertheless, Renzi knows that his voice will not necessarily be listened to, because Germany and the European commission will be the protagonists, and this is a good opportunity for Italy. For once, Renzi will have the chance to be the voice of conscience of Europe. He will advocate a radical reform of the European system in the name of a strengthened union, he will then ask to the United Kingdom to stay and to help Italy reform the institutions, and, finally, for the first time in years, he will have the possibility to stand up for European values without being accused of populism or idealism.

The reformist approach to European issues is something the Democratic party has been harbouring since the overwhelming victory it gained in June 2014 in the European elections and has been nourishing with small meaningful actions. In this context, the Italian government recently published a position paper with concrete proposals for a reformed Europe and announced the allocation of €80m to transform the former jail fortress located in Santo Stefano, a tiny island not far from Ventotene, into a European school.

To sum up, Renzi is betting on Cameron and on his capacity for convincing British voters of the merits of the European system. If the United Kingdom will stay in the European Union, it will be the first brick of a European reform process where Italy is hoping to play a crucial role.

Francesco Rocchetti works in the European parliament, in the office of an Italian MEP

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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