Matteo Renzi, Italy's new boy, shows how diplomacy is done
Italian prime minister is basically pro-European - and he won far more support than either Ukip or the FN
Adoring fans run alongside the rising political star in the hope of getting close enough to snap a selfie. Nervous bodyguards try to keep fawning female followers at arm’s length. Bursts of applause explode from the gathered crowd.
No, it's not Nigel Farage visiting an Essex pub. This is Italy's young prime minister, Matteo Renzi, in Rome yesterday – strutting confidently through the Eternal City, smiling and waving as fighter jets trailing green, white and red smoke roar overhead to celebrate Republic Day.
Despite the headlines over the past week declaring Eurosceptic leaders the big winners of the EU elections, it was Renzi and his pro-European centre-left Democratic Party who drew 41 per cent of Italian support, far more than Marine Le Pen’s 25 per cent or Nigel Farage’s 27.5 per cent. And unlike them, Renzi is actually running a country with no shortage of very pressing economic problems.
Renzi, the 39-year-old former mayor of Florence, became prime minister in February after unseating his party colleague Enrico Letta and promising to reform Italy’s unwieldy political system and get the economy back on track.
The EU election results show that, like Angela Merkel in Germany, Renzi is able to speak to his people and gather consensus, despite rising austerity fatigue among the electorate - even if last Sunday's victory was in part due to his popular E80-a-month tax bonus for low-income earners and a reduction in regional business tax.
As for his relationship with the powers-that-be in Europe, like David Cameron he wants reforms and less interference from Brussels - though many would say he's dealing with it better than his more experienced British counterpart.
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When the EU Commission issued its dreaded economic "report cards" to member states yesterday, Italy was told to do more in 2015 to bring down its soaring debt-to-GDP, now approximately 133 per cent, second only to Greece in the Eurozone. The Commission also called Italy's macro-economic outlook "too optimistic".
“I’m not afraid,” said Renzi, dressed down in faded jeans and a dress shirt at an economic summit in Trento over the weekend, ahead of the Commission's edict.
“The EU needs to change its economic line - or politics will do its job and take back the power from bureaucracy."
But asked about his feelings about the federalist Jean-Claude Juncker becoming the new president of the EU Commission, he is careful to say it's the issues not the personalities that matter.
If Renzi seems unfazed by EU dictats, it's because he expects he'll be given a pass. As Italy takes over the EU presidency later this month, he comes to the table with consensus at home and more clout abroad as one of the few European leaders successfully speaking out against austerity, but still in the mainstream, simultaneously pro-Europe and pro-reform.
It is a delicate dance. And his every misstep will be pounced on by Beppe Grillo, leader of the anti-establishment 5-Star movement, who came in second in the European election with 21 per cent.
Last week, Grillo lunched with Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Brussels - “We are rebels with a cause,” said Grillo. “We fight with a smile” - and the two men are openly discussing forming a new European Parliament group.
But the “animated and friendly” relationship between the two flamboyant outsiders is causing a serious rift inside Grillo’s party and the Italian is having to wage a pro-Farage campaign ("He’s not racist! He’s not a homophobe! He cares about the environment!") to lower the risk of his followers deserting when the party holds its online vote on the matter later this month.
Farage is doing his part, too, to introduce himself to Italians. In an interview with the Corriere della Sera, he called Grillo "an acute political mind" and tried to persuade Italians that Ukip was not a party of racists and hompphobes, noting that one Ukip MEP was openly gay and another was a Pakistani Muslim from Yorkshire.
Renzi, meanwhile, has to deliver on his many promises – to cut public spending, introduce effective labour and electoral reform, and revamp the parliamentary system – without losing popular support.
If Italy’s fractious parliament doesn't play ball, he could call snap elections and bring in a new wave of MPs who will.
For now, at least, Italy seems ready to forge ahead down the young Florentine’s precarious path of reform. If he succeeds, Renzi might not just save Italy – he could end up being a beacon of hope for Europe, too. ·