It is an unusual, but surely rather nice feeling: for once Italy looks a lot better, politically, after the European Parliament elections than do a lot of other EU countries.
Matteo Renzi’s big success against Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi no doubt had its foundations in a lot of domestic factors, including voters’ hope that their still very new prime minister might bring about the change they need. Yet that very spirit could now also be an inspiration for Europe—especially as Italy, led by Mr Renzi, will be president of the European Council for six months starting in July.
Mr Renzi stands for everything that European voters clearly want: new, outside the old political elites, young, reformist, energetic, full of hope. Whether he eventually disappoints Italian voters we will have to wait to see. But for now let’s focus on what this means for Europe.
The anti-EU votes around the continent, which were seen particularly strongly in Britain, France, Denmark and Greece, represent anger at the political elites, frustration at the EU’s seeming lack of purpose and relevance, pain at the long economic crisis, alienation because of their lack of hope.
That is pretty much what explained the 25% share of the vote won by Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, in the February 2013 Italian general election too.
What Mr Renzi has shown is that voters respond positively to energy, a sense of purpose, a new face, a language of action and hope. So that is what the EU now also must find, and fast. And as European Council President, Mr Renzi ought surely to help it find those things.
It needs to find them first in a new president for the European Commission. If governments choose the top “Spitzenkandidat” from the European Parliament, Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker, they will in effect be spitting in the faces of their voters. Whatever his skills, he epitomizes old, traditional, slow, remote, alien.
Mr Renzi ought to press his colleagues at the European Council to be bold, and to choose someone like him. Not him personally, of course, but someone newer, younger, more dynamic. One name that leaps to mind is Poland’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, who is always calling for stronger and more dynamic leadership in Europe. Another idea would be the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who would be the first female Commission president, and who ought surely to be geared up to respond, given the success in her own country of the right-wing Danish People’s Party.
Second, he needs to do whatever he can during his six months in the European chair to give the EU a fresh sense of energy and purpose. To do that, he would be well advised to cut back the usually long agenda and announce a focus on a few big topics, just as he did when he arrived in Palazzo Chigi.
One was mentioned on this blog very recently: energy, in response to the crisis in Ukraine. Another needs to be a fresh, collective, approach to immigration. The third he will have to be stealthy about: it must be to find an alternative to the relentless fiscal austerity that has stripped European voters of hope.
It won’t be easy. But the chance to lead and inspire Europe doesn’t come along very often.