Italy's radical Matteo Renzi gets Obama and Cameron on side

Vow to reduce bloated government and decision to sell off car fleet gets Italians behind Renzi, too

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:23 ON Wed 2 Apr 2014

IS IT TIME to start taking Italy’s fresh-faced prime minister, 39-year-old Matteo Renzi, seriously?

After last week's whirlwind visit to Rome by US President Barack Obama (who, on visiting the Colosseum, commented - wince – "This is bigger than some current baseball stadiums") and yesterday's summit at 10 Downing Street (where David Cameron remarked: "Is it just me, but are prime ministers getting younger all the time?") the gutsy ex–mayor of Florence is putting his political career on the line to cut his country’s bloated government.  

Italy must “do its part” to cut bureaucracy and create more growth for a flexible labour market, even if that means “fighting against those who are afraid of change,” Renzi said in London following his meeting with Cameron.

Italy’s government includes 950 senators and deputies. Renzi’s audacious plan would require that 320 members of the upper house essentially commit political suicide by voting to eliminate their own jobs.

If the reform somehow passes, those unemployed pols won’t be alone. Yesterday, Italy’s statistical agency announced that 1,000 Italians a day lost their jobs in the last 12 months - a 37-year record.

Last week Renzi put 150 state executive cars up for auction online. The “auto blu” cars epitomise Italy’s fat cat politicians, who are chauffeured around in plush comfort despite the country’s worst recession since World War Two.  

While the government will make a modest profit on the sales, the real cost-cutting is not having to maintain and fuel the luxury fleet anymore, or pay the drivers (who also lost their jobs). 

Moves like this and the plan to wipe out an entire layer of government are popular among the people, the financial markets and world leaders. But there is uproar in the halls of power as Renzi plays every card he’s got. Earlier this week, he pledged to quit politics if the reforms don’t pass.  

Comedians in Italy had a field day portraying Renzi as Obama’s tail-wagging lapdog after the US President’s state trip to Rome. Admittedly, Renzi, a former boy scout, did come across a bit like a starstruck teenager ready to snap a selfie at any moment. But jokes aside, President Obama’s friendly visit is widely believed to have given Renzi a big boost.

It certainly didn’t hurt unemployment - 1,000 police and security personnel were called in to work the day Obama’s motorcade made its way through ancient Rome, with divers patrolling the Tiber, snipers on the rooftops of the ancient palazzi and canine units sniffing each and every terracotta potted palm.

Here’s a rundown of what Renzi gave and what he got out of his talks with Obama:

What Renzi got:

  • The promise of economic growth through new translatlantic trade partnerships as well as a pledge of US participation in the 2015 Milan Expo.
  • A deal with the US to remove all highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium from Italian soil. More than 17 kilograms of the dangerous materials were removed from three facilities: Saluggia near Milan, Casaccia near Rome and Trisaia near Matera. There is a lot of it left, and the two countries pledged to work together to eliminate stocks of nuclear materials to avoid their falling into the hands of terrorists.
  • Praise for Italy’s continued commitment in Afghanistan and Kosovo, putting peacekeepers in Lebanon and restoring order in Libya. Obama noted that Italy will soon be developing specialised capacities in North Africa and the Mediterranean.   
  • Moral support. As Italy makes its hard choices, “the United States stands with you,” Obama said.

What Renzi gave:

  • A port for transfer of Syrian chemical weapons. Despite criticism at home, Italy agreed to allow Nato to transport chemical weapons to its southern port of Gioia Tauro (16 tonnes left Latakia in January). Once there, the “most critical” chemical agents will be loaded onto a US cargo ship, then destroyed by hydrolysis in international waters, according to the White House.
  • Support for defence. Renzi politely sidestepped prickly discussions of prior calls to reduce Italy’s planned order of F-35 fighter jets. Obama said he understood the need to reduce defence spending, increase efficiency and reduce duplication, and noted the US had done so by bringing two wars to a close. But he was clear on the point that America expected its Nato allies to pull their weight, citing “a certain amount of irreducible commitment”… “We can’t have a situation in which the US spends more than three per cent of GDP on defence - much of that focused on Europe - while there are other countries that only spend one per cent.”

Can the ambitious young Italian prime minister afford to keep all his promises? Renzi might still run out of wriggle room in his audacious plans for political and economic reform.

But senior world leaders are backing him and polls show he is Italy's most popular politician – support he is banking on if the only way ahead for Italy's third non-elected PM in a year is to force an election. ·