Italy seeks a revolution as it takes the reins of European Union

Matteo Renzi demands bloc promotes growth, warning Europe is at crossroads and needs to win back people tired of economic decline

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 June, 2014, 12:43am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 June, 2014, 11:20am


As Italy prepares to take over the European Union presidency tomorrow, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has called for a fresh start, insisting growth is essential to quelling anti-EU sentiment.

The energetic left-wing leader has warned that Europe is at a crossroads and needs to win back people tired of years of economic decline or stagnation.

"Europe cannot simply be a place of codicils, quibbles, parameters, constraints... a no-man's land of bureaucracies," Renzi said last week ahead of a meeting of EU leaders in the Belgian town of Ypres, a bloody first world war battlefield.

Boring old aunt Europe has become submerged by numbers

"Thousands of young people did not die so that we could wrangle over parameters," he said. The "boring old aunt" Europe had become, "submerged by numbers and without soul", risked missing "a historic chance for change".

Renzi, 39, who took power in February after ousting his predecessor for failing to boost growth in recession-hit Italy, has a strong mandate in Europe after his centre-left Democratic Party won a resounding victory in May's European Parliament elections.

But he said the electoral fortunes of anti-EU parties in countries such as France, Britain and Denmark showed a level of anger over austerity that was "much more serious and significant that we can possibly imagine".

Renzi, whose country has a public debt at more than 135 per cent of GDP - the second largest in the eurozone after Greece - has joined forces with France in calling for fiscal flexibility in exchange for structural reforms.

While the former mayor of Florence has promised to "respect the rules" concerning the EU-agreed public deficit ceiling of 3 per cent, he has also warned "there can be no stability possible if there is no growth".

Youth unemployment, immigration, investment in small- and medium-sized enterprises and tax reform are key issues Italy wants on the table when it dons the EU presidential hat for six months.

Faced with a jobless rate of 12.6 per cent at home, Renzi has called for the next European Commission chief - Jean-Claude Juncker was chosen on Friday - to allow more money to be spent on public investment, despite an apparent unwillingness from Germany to change the budget rule book.

Federico Niglia, an expert in contemporary history at Rome's Luiss University, said: "The Italian presidential semester will begin with numerous difficulties", including "a newly elected parliament which asserted anti-European forces".

The naming of Juncker as president of the European Commission came after a bitter row over whether the former Luxembourg prime minister would be able to deliver reform - with Britain leading the "nay" camp.

"Britain's position will also be a problem for the Italian presidency, because London's ideas on integration are completely opposed to Rome," which is pushing for greater unity within the 28-nation bloc, Niglia said.

Renzi will also have to persuade the EU's richer countries to the north that bids to ease fiscal rules will not just lead to renewed public overspending.

For all their differences, the EU's top leaders agreed about one thing, Niglia said: "The European election results are an alarm bell impossible to ignore."