As Italy takes over the rotating presidency of the EU for the next six months, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has received a standing ovation in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday (2 July) for giving a passionate and inspiring speech, putting aside the programme and focusing on the vision for a new Europe. But some MEPs have urged him to deliver intelligent policies, rather than words.
“If Europe would take a selfie of itself today, it would show a bored face,” Renzi said, calling for a change so that the continent can find its soul again.
The energetic, passionate and talented left-wing leader – so MEPs described the former mayor of Florence – has warned that Europe needs to give people more hope after years of economic decline and stagnation.
“We either recover our true identity or we’ll miss the meaning of being together,” he warned, saying the time of empty rhetoric was over, urging EU leaders to act with conviction and determination to keep Europe in the lead on global issues.
No more blaming Europe
The 39-year prime minister, who was bolstered after his centre-left Democratic Party won a resounding victory in May’s European Parliament elections, has pledged Italy will not look for shortcuts, but rather take its responsibility as a founding member of the EU. Blaming Europe for failed national policies is a no-go, he said.
Pointing at the rise of anti-EU parties in France, Britain and Italy, he argued that the damage created by the crisis and austerity policies had left a deep wound that could be healed by shifting the focus to growth and investment strategies, to reboot the economy.
Faced with a jobless rate of 12.6% at home, Renzi has called for the next European Commission chief to allow more money to be spent on public investment.
With a public debt of more than 135% of its GDP, Italy has also joined France in recent calling for more fiscal flexibility in exchange for structural reforms. “We now have stability. We are asking for growth to be a fundamental element of European policy,”
Ahead of an EU leaders summit last week, Germany offered Rome a gentler interpretation of EU budget rules in a move seen as ensuring Italy’s backing for the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as the next President of the European Commission.
Manfred Weber, centre-right leader in the European Parliament, warned against pushing for too much flexibility. “It’s not because financial markets are calmer that we need to relax,” he said, adding that debts destroy the future.
“We have to stick to what was agreed. We have to implement what we have decided and show our citizens that we are responsible,” he said, hinting at the fact that the Italian debt level is still a matter of concern.
Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt echoed that it is not a question of either or growth and austerity. “They are the two sides of the same coin,” he stressed in his answer to Renzi.
Philippe Lamberts, the Belgian co-chair of the Greens, praised the passion and energy of the Italian prime minister and expressed hope to see these qualities put into action during the presidency.
Despite positive consumer confidence indicators and bond yields at home, some are concerned that the measures taken by his government are too few to cut debt and boost growth.
Since he took office, Renzi has pushed through some business-boosting reforms, but critics say they are too few to redress the situation.
For example, companies can hire 20% of their workforces on fixed-term contracts of up to three years. The government has cut income tax by about €80 a month for those on less than €26,000 a year, in a bid to boost demand.
Renzi has also cut electricity costs – higher than the European average – by around 10% for small- and medium-sized companies. Last week, he passed new measures to encourage lending to businesses.
Although it is too early to say whether these reforms are working, Renzi promises results. The world is advancing at a fast pace, and if we don t take the right decisions, we will remain a little spot on the Google map, he added.
>> Read more about the Italian presidency: Italy vows to use presidency to change Europe