German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, has been defeated in regional elections in both Berlin and her home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. President Hollande’s France is in political chaos until its upcoming presidential elections in 2017. The United Kingdom has pulled itself out of the European game with Brexit. Voilà, the portrait of Europe’s political arena: a very gloomy one as its three major economies are failing to project political power and to brand themselves as European leaders in the moment when the EU needs leadership the most. Indeed, the EU is at risk of implosion because of its inability to find unity in front of the multifaceted crisis of demography, economy and migration. As Europeans are becoming increasingly skeptical about the unifying power of Germany, who, if any, can become the next continental engine? With the UK out of the game, a spot is open on the European Champions’ podium and a country that hasn’t been afraid to step on it is one referred to as peripheral although being a founding member of the Union: Italy.
Not only does Italy already represent the third largest economy in the post Brexit Union, it has also exhibited a recent drive of new political resurgence domestically and internationally. Immediately after taking office as prime minister, Matteo Renzi expressed his willingness to confer a broader European perspective to his government’s mandate. Over the past two years, he has repeatedly spoken about the need to save Europe and to change the narrative of the continent seeking confrontations and public exchanges with those European leaders who, according to him, hamper the need for change. Renzi’s Democratic Party (Partito Democratico) was the only European majority party to receive a higher number of votes in the European Parliament election of 2014 and has increased its domestic popularity ever since. Whereas populism is on the rise in the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, Italians have moved on from the Berlusconi era; the political support for the populist parties Northern League (Lega Nord) and the Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle) has considerably decreased in recent years (although they appear to be making some gains again).
Italy is also more confident internationally. The country is leading the effort to repair the EU- Russia relationship after the Ukraine confrontation and to strengthen EU cooperation in Syria. Last spring, the Italian government delivered an unofficial document to other member states titled the “Migration Compact.” The aim of the démarche is to combat irregular immigration, which has been well received by EU authorities. Two months ago, Italy also laid out its vision for a European Multinational Force à la Schengen; the Schengen Agreement, which governs the EU’s free-travel zone, was first signed by just five out of the then 10 EU member states in 1985 as an intergovernmental project. It was later included into the main body of EU law with the Amsterdam Treaty and now comprises 22 out of 28 EU member states. Such an agreement outside of the EU framework wouldn’t face the dilemma of a deepened military integration between those EU countries that are member of NATO and those that are not. Furthermore, the possible access of a post Brexit United Kingdom to a European Multinational Force wouldn’t jeopardize the prerequisites for the creation of such a Force.
Behind the scenes, Italy has also catalyzed a rebellion against the austerity economic policies of the German government (and promoted by the European Commission). Italian minister of finance Pier Carlo Padoan’s strong call for fiscal stimulus translated into tax cutting and maintenance of public spending plans. Consequently, consumer and business confidence in Italy have seen noteworthy improvements over the past several years, credit conditions have improved, and Italy is the only G7 country expected by the IMF to grow faster in 2016 than 2015.
Yet, as Italy continues to face substantial problems of corruption, political mistrust and a national debt of over 2 billion euros, some may argue that this is not the time for Rome to fill the gap in European leadership. Furthermore, the fact that Italy has stepped on the European Champions’ podium doesn’t necessarily mean that it will reach its zenith. In fact, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, though losing support domestically, will certainly fight to maintain the status quo as she runs for a fourth term in office. As for France, it all depends on whether the French people will opt for an EU-skeptical president like Marine Le Pen (Front National), a pro-Russian and religious conservative in Francois Fillon (Republicains), or a EU-reformist like Emmanuel Macron (Parti Socialiste) in the upcoming elections of 2017. The victory of a EU-skeptical candidate would undoubtedly break the Franco-German alliance that has been a crucial political driver in Europe over the past years.
Domestically, the upcoming constitutional referendum on December 4th shows the Italian prime minister’s choice of putting his own survival before the need of finding a durable cure to the pluri-decennial sickness of the Italian democracy. In fact, the constitutional reform that is voted on in the referendum entails the conferral of main legislative functions solely to the Chamber of Deputies (the lower chamber) where the majority party enjoys a significant advantage against the parliamentary opposition and the actually represented voters. In such a context it is likely to give too much power to the government and the parliamentary force that supports it which in turn would narrow the space for parliamentary and democratic debate.
Although Renzi’s domestic maneuvers leave no shortage of doubts, his survival could prove to be beneficial on a broader European scale. The pressure of economic, demographic and migration crises is fueling old nationalistic sentiments throughout Europe and threatening the very existence of the European Union. In the aftermath of World War II, the EU was born as a peacekeeper, designed to prevent the rise of further nationalistic ambitions through economic interdependence. To watch the resurgence of nationalism throughout the Union is spine-chilling. There is no single country in Europe with the political and economic resources that can find a durable solution to this crisis on its own, therefore unity in Europe is needed now more than ever.
But which country has the leadership capacity to drive such unity? Indeed, Renzi’s assertiveness constitutes a refreshing and powerful wind in the staleness of European politics à la Merkel. With other EU powers struggling to take on a stronger position in this time of need, Italy might still be in the best position to undertake such a role. Yet, in order for him to reach up to first step on the European Champions’ podium, Renzi has to survive a reelection in two years and also this weekend’s upcoming referendum on December 4th. On a European level, he has to profit on the halting German leadership in order to increase his attractiveness to his European colleagues. Furthermore, the possibility of France opting for a EU-skeptical president in 2017 would automatically boost Renzi’s figure as a European leader and encourage Berlin to seek deeper cooperation with Rome. If Italy is able to address and overcome these obstacles, it will have a chance to become the next European champion and to live up to its Roman heritage as a strong advocate for the continuity of the ongoing pax europea.
Nicolò Branchesi was most recently a visiting fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations (CTR), at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Public International Law at Åbo Akademi University (Turku, Finland), with a dissertation on the compliance of the principle of non-refoulement with the Common European Asylum System, with special regard to the Dublin III regulation. Since 2015, he has been a member of the international committee of the Swedish People’s Party in Finland’s youth organization.