Sun, Apr 05, 2015 - Page 9 News List

New blood wants to disrupt old world order

The youngest prime minister in Italy’s history wants to rebuild the country — and Europe — to bolster the dreams of a younger generation

By Jim Yardley  /  NY Times News Service, ROME

Illustration: Lance Liu

In a tailored black suit, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stood before the Italian Senate recently and applauded lawmakers for taking some tough votes on reforms he boasted would jump-start the country after the longest slump in its modern history.

However, what he did not bring up is that he is asking them to take an even tougher vote, to essentially abolish the Senate itself, which Renzi and many others regard as emblematic of a broken political system that often seems designed not to get things done.

The speech was vintage Renzi: Brash and boastful, framed in a better-days-ahead optimism, even as senators already understood the knife-in-the-ribs reality of the reform program. At 40, Renzi is the youngest prime minister in Italy’s history, having assumed office on promises to tear down the country’s ossified political structure and rebuild the country for a younger generation.

With left-wing and right-wing populist movements seeking to topple the political establishments from London to Madrid to Paris, Renzi has positioned himself as Europe’s insurgent insider. He has tried to tap into the public anger by arguing that the system should be changed from within and offering himself — as former British prime minister Tony Blair and former US president Bill Clinton did in an earlier era — as a way forward for traditional, center-left parties struggling to stay relevant.

In Europe, Renzi has frequently challenged fiscal austerity, warning of dire problems if leaders fail to shift to policies to bolster economic growth, a topic certain to be discussed when he meets with US President Barack Obama in April at the White House. He has cultivated a relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel — hosting her in Florence for an art-filled visit — and now argues that Europe’s embrace of quantitative easing and infrastructure spending proves that a meaningful policy shift is underway.

“It’s important to underline the new direction of the European Union,” Renzi said during a recent interview in his office in Rome, noting that Europe needed to move away from only “discussing budgets and austerity.” He added, “We have an identity, dreams, hope and strategy.”

His success or failure will ultimately be measured by whether he can revive Italy. The country’s economy — the third largest on the continent — has been stagnant for two decades. Unemployment rose to 12.7 percent on Tuesday, and youth unemployment is far higher. Italy’s national debt is roughly US$2.9 trillion, a staggering figure, and the economy is struggling to emerge from a double-dip recession.

“Italy can make or break the European Union,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political analyst in Florence.

“Look at Italy from Berlin. What other leader can Merkel trust? Renzi is the only one,” he added.

Renzi’s operating style is a blend of high-octane energy, skilled public communications and ruthless political maneuvering. He is still unproven as an administrator and his reform push has angered segments of the opposition as well as entrenched interests in his center-left Democratic Party.

Traditional allies, like trade unions, are furious about labor market changes that they say favor business. Old-guard politicians, right and left, are wary that his diminution of the Senate, along with proposed changes to the electoral law and the constitution, would place too much power in the executive branch.

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