Matteo Renzi at the Council on Foreign Relations Showed Charisma, But That May Not Be Enough for Italy

Renzi's Florentine wit made his imperfect English attractive to bankers and financial executives that came to listen to the Italian Premier talk about the reforms necessary to save Italy's economy. However, all the American listeners heard, as with many other times in the past, were the same promises of wars against corruption and reforms of public bureaucratic bodies...  They know that such promises are kept only rarely.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s recent performance at New York’s Council on Foreign Relations was entirely true to form.  Renzi exuded charisma.  His well known Florentine wit managed to filter through his imperfect, but creditable, English.  He constructed his ringing phrases in ways certain to appeal to an audience consisting largely of professionals in finance, banking, business, law and diplomacy.  Everyone present gave him deserved high marks for his political performance.  Some of those present mentioned that Italy’s young head of government brought to mind Tony Blair of an earlier era.

Comparisons to Blair, however, understandably were limited.  Unlike Blair, Matteo Renzi continues to face organized and vocal opposition within his own PD (Partito Democratico).  On the very day of his speech in New York, the Italian press announced that as many as forty lawmakers from the prime minister’s party had come out publicly in opposition to Renzi’s proposed changes in Italy’s labor market.  

On the one hand,  the prime minister’s forthright  defiance of Italian organized labor’s opposition to his proposed labor market reforms drew admiring responses from the American audience.  In contrast to Italy, the United States is now a place where the labor unions have lost much of the political clout they once enjoyed.   There was considerably less conviction that his reform, if enacted, should make Italy much more attractive than it has been (for many decades) as a place where global corporations wish to direct their FDI, or foreign direct investments. If Italy has not had anything like its “fair share” of such capital inputs from abroad, the reasons are much more varied and complex than a simple reform of the Statuto dei Lavoratori would correct. 

The same somewhat skeptical reactions could be heard, following the formal meeting, to Matteo Renzi’s statements about his rejection of the past, his claim that he represents “revolution,” and that this will mean a reduction of corruption, and a genuine reforms of Italy’s bureaucratic system.  On the one hand, the prime minister’s youth (at age 39 the youngest Italian to hold that office since Benito Mussolini, in 1922, captured it at the same age) is not lost on his audiences. The relatively young average age of Renzi’s cabinet, and the gender equality has brought to his cabinet, are both positive and indeed much appreciated aspects of his new-style leadership.  For the first time in Italy’s sixty-odd years as a republic, there is genuine evidence that the gerontocracy’s political  stranglehold on the country may be loosened.

The real problem with Matteo Renzi’s rhetoric is its rhetorical quality, very present in New York. Relatively little of substance followed on Renzi’s proud statement about how much better than yesterday Italy is going to be, thanks to his new style of leadership. Little was said in New York that resembles a coherent set of specific public policy proposals.  It is one thing for Renzi to condemn “austerity” as a logical solution to the economic crises triggered in the United States a few years ago. It is quite a different type of challenge to anyone, particularly to a head of government in a country as economically important as is Italy, to be specific as to what alternative public policies are to be preferred.  Renzi had notably little to say on that score. 

 Similarly Renzi indicated that there would be no new or additional taxes levied in his country.  At the same time, he promises to improve the quality of Italy’s human capital base, reminding everyone that, after all, Italy is much more than the country of unsurpassed fine arts and high fashion.  Again, it would have raised the quality of the presentation, and won the prime minister higher levels of approbation, had he taken of few minutes to explain exactly how he hopes to bring this change about, at what cost to whom.  He was speaking after all to a group of Americans, some of whom (especially those in finance) are skeptical about the prime minister’s widely heralded program of increasing the take-home pay of Italy’s labor force, without tying this improvement to any reciprocal  and enforceable obligation on the part of the latter. 

 The prime minister’s populist impulses are so powerful; his repeated promises  to act “for the people,” even “against the unions” if necessary;  his descriptions of himself as embodying a rejection of the past and gateway to revolutionary change—all of these things  would take on a different cast, and bring him more respect were they tied to a specified  policy agenda, or  a palpable political program.  There was remarkable little of this in what Renzi had to say.

To be fair, Renzi did specify that he favors a new electoral law that would resemble the French double-election, or electoral run-off system, a reform proposal which predates his coming to national prominence and power.  Once this still-languishing change is enacted, Italy might be blessed with both fewer political parties and, more important, with stronger and more coherent governments.  The fact that even this vitally needed change is mired in the Byzantine-like Italian political morass creates doubts as to how quickly Matteo Renzi can bring about the Brave New World he promises. A better prediction is that, like others before him, he will fail.

 Renzi also mentioned the proposed institutional reform which would abolish the Italian Senate in its present form and put in its place a much smaller and weaker body not directly chosen by the people in national elections. There are those in Italy who believe this so-called reform will actually increase dubious coziness, in not downright corrupt deals, between local and national elites.  In any event, the need or value of this vaunted reform was perhaps  lost on an audience of persons long accustomed to the plusses and minuses of “perfect” bi-cameral legislatures among forty-nine American states, as well as at the American national capital.  

 A final reflection on the Renzi speech is that all of those among his listeners would have heard, many times in the past, promises of wars on corruption, of reforms of public bureaucratic bodies, and of brighter economic futures for countries and their peoples.  They know as well that only rarely are such promises kept.  The adage that reminds us that oceans separate the saying from the doing,  the promises from the performances, the abstractions from the realities of life—that adage is understood to be universal, not limited to Italy or to Italian politics.  If Matteo Renzi was pleased with his visit to the Council on Foreign Relations, he must have sensed that, beyond many doubts about what was said, his listeners share the strong wish that he will succeed to bring about at least some of the more salutary changes he enumerated.


LaPalombara*Joseph LaPalombara is the Arnold Wolfers Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Management at Yale University.













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