Twenty years ago, thinking how Europe, faced with its demographic and industrial decline, could develop a competitive and harmonious model, I posited it could become the world’s museum (of clean air and quality of life) or the muse of a new manufacturing Renaissance. Then, I hoped Italy, led by a ‘Red Catholic’ from Emilia (Romano Prodi) could play a role. I was disappointed. Today ‘Super’Matteo Renzi, another ‘Red Catholic’, is leading Italy and could himself play a role at European level.
Pse play The The’s, This is the Day, from the album Soul Mining (1983- 3’47”) when reading this post.
European Renaissance is, as I teach every year at the course I give in Trento (http://events.unitn.it/en/crashcourse2015), the moment when Change and Progress became a paradigm for improving society. Before that time, Europeans aimed at keeping the ruling order: Princes would become Kings, blacksmiths would become blacksmiths and peasants would remain peasants. The Renaissance, which started in Florence and in Italy, showed that human ingenuity and lust for money, but also for beauty, could spur a positive change, bettering the whole society. The spread of affordable books, the rising agricultural yields and eventually Enlightenment, Religious Reform and Science spurred Europe to replace Asia as the world’s hegemonic continent.
Born in Florence and with his power base raised in the industrial socialism typical of Toscana and Emilia, Matteo Renzi has already achieved much:
- He is reforming Italy’s job’s market, inspired by Spain and inspiring France, modernising its infrastructure and investing in its future, holding out on its deficit thanks to Economy and Finance Minister Padoan’s skills.
- Renzi is pragmatically reforming Italy’s economy and society, whilst apparently conserving an electoral majority and keeping at bay Eurosceptic populists such as Beppe Grillo on the left and ‘Under’Matteo Salvini on the right.
- He is now gambling most of this credit in a referendum which should this Autumn, after a decade of blockage, validate the law his government has passed to reform Italy’s sclerotic political system: abolishing the perfect dualism between the Chamber and Senate, renovating the Senate and changing the tainted electoral law still designed by the last Berlusconi government.
Two leading English newspapers suggested last week that Renzi could play a similar role in Europe. Faced with French introspective conflicts and British xenophobic battles, British columnists see Renzi as a possible antagonist to the current German European hegemony (in the Guardian) or as a sparring partner (in the Economist). As an Italian anglophile, I have seen how Italy, once praised for its economic miracle in the ‘70s, even surpassing UK’s GDP in the ‘90s, then became in British press a despised laggard, once Berlusconi’s bluff was called whilst internal strife and Chinese manufacturing prowess’s sank its industry. It’s interesting to go back to the ‘BritIn’ referendum of ’75 when the government’s rhetoric explained the Italian surge because it was in the then ‘Common Market’. As UK regained its world’s economic rank, thanks to Thatcherite’s liberalisation and Blair’s Cool Britannia export of financial technology and culture (two Florentine strengths in the original Renaissance) – few recognised the possible contribution that EU membership gave UK.
Just back from two business meetings in Italian ministries and 3 weeks of holidays there, I would agree that you can see in Italy signs for a long awaited dynamism. At the #RicercaPerLaSalute days:
- PM Renzi announced that Italy would not fight Daesh by raging war to Libya, but by investing €2.5 billion in research and 1 billion in culture. Promising, but let’s see how this materializes.
- Health Minister Lorenzin proposed to modernise career paths for Italian health researchers, based on the European Charter of Researchers, and to invest €180 million in health research for 2017. This will happen.
- After centuries of Italians being cured in the US, Americans are coming to Italy to be cured, from world famous Alex Zanardi to no more anonymous Ella and Eli kids (https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PL40Ch8fBUPXvqfsrd_csF-cUEzihHovUW&v=0qIYsrwtiz4), coming to Tiget in Milano. These are realities.
And yes, Italy could lead XXIst Europe’s Renaissance too:
- Italy hosted in February 2016 a meeting of the six EU founding countries to explore federal options, such as the one of an EU Economy minister (http://www.euractiv.com/section/central-europe/news/eu-s-founding-members-seek-more-europe-even-if-it-is-smaller/);
- It is determined to curb its habit of flaunting EU legislation, providing more certainty to foreign investors (https://ninja.oximity.com/article/Infrazioni-Italia-scende-a-80.-Ok-a-le-1)
- It could launch a Keynesian drive led by Minister Padoan and ECB President Draghi, curbing German fear to invest, but the Euro financial crisis will have to be solved WITH Germany, not against Germany (http://www.repubblica.it/politica/2016/05/15/news/a_renzi_ricordiamo_l_italia_ha_costruito_l_europa-139823579/).
- Italy and Germany are, for me, not too far apart on three other Euro-crises: Greece’s debt, Immigration and Industrial Policy – where both countries are manufacturing and exporting powerhouses.
Bur for Italy to be able to lead Europe, its leaders Renzi, Padoan and Interior Minister Alfano must be able to dedicate some time and efforts to Europe, if only to address pressing national issues, like they did in proposing the recent ‘Migration Compact’ (http://pr.euractiv.com/pr/pes-president-supports-renzi-s-migration-plan-140323). In addition to the three Euro-crisis mentioned above, Italy suffers from three specific challenges they have to address before any Renaissance can take place:
- Public debt (at 133% of GDP) and bad banking loans (at 18% http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21698650-italy-has-been-flirting-banking-crisisand-brussels-partly-blame-rule-flaw) are still weighing down public and private investments. The PD (Padoan & Draghi) team is doing its best, but, today, I can witness first hands that young, even successful, innovators mostly resort to Business Angels and Crowdfunding.
- Renzi’s success is due to the fact he ALSO IS a braggadocio populist. After ‘inventing’ fascism, Christian-democracy, Eurocommunism and Mediacracy (with Berlusconi) Italy now boasts the largest internet based party AND strong Eurosceptic parties on its left and right. Renzi’s quick rhetoric, tweets and streamed meetings is holding them out by playing on their own turf. Insulting or making fun of foreign leaders through quick-witted tweets may attract the votes of Italians, but also the ire of such leaders. His Tuscan ‘Guasconeria’ could lose him too.
- Finally there is the Octopus. Hiding more than before, the Mafia permeates most of Italy in a manner many foreigners can’t even imagine. Recently, with a stronger state a few politicians have been indicted for having been favoured by the Mafia, ‘without being aware’ of this. Anti-mafia laws give disproportionate powers to the judiciary and it took years to honest politicians to fend off such challenges. I saw the Mafia directly only twice, in the ‘70s: it pushed a plumber into emigration, for the crime of reading the water meter of a local boss and it forced the three kids of a daring entrepreneur out of school so that they could remain in hiding – even when in Belgium. I have not found in English the nasty and authoritative quotes I have in Italian (http://www.iduepunti.it/frasi-del-giorno), but will quote Giovanni Falcone on my secret hope “The Mafia isn’t invincible: it’s a human deed and like all human deeds it has a beginning and an end. Instead, we must realize that we can win without requiring helpless citizens to be heroes, but using in this battle all the best forces of the institutions” – Giovanni Falcone
When the crowd’s mood is right or the issue annoying, SuperMatteo Renzi occasionally bursts in Eurobashing rants. I hope that, like he did only two years ago coming out from the city and Region where he grew his skills and developed his founding base, he will rise away from his Italy to help Europe Reform. Maybe then, like 500 years ago, Italy can spur a new European Renaissance.
NoA – This post is private and personal. It does not represent views of the Commission for which I work. Re-publishing is possible under Copyleft principles. I would appreciate being informed and quoted.Eurobrat