Assessing Matteo Renzi: the great hope of European progressives?

The European republic of Italy faces a difficult situation at present, confronted not only with an economy in the doldrums, but with many of its young people either without a job or having gone abroad in search of employment. But it is also a time of great opportunity, as Italy has a charismatic leader in the form of Matteo Renzi, who not only offers the possibility of pulling the Italian republic out of its long period of economic stagnation, but also to establish a new social-democratic consensus in Italy.

Coming into office following the resignation of the previous incumbent Enrico Letta (also of Renzi’s left-wing Democratic Party) in February, Renzi has breathed new life into the Italian political landscape with his can-do approach and appearance as a dynamic leader who represents a new era of Italian politics. This was symbolised earlier this year by his decision to auction off hundreds of government cars (a hated political symbol in Italy) and by his appointing of a record number of women to cabinet positions. Renzi’s cabinet is also a predominately progressive one, with just over half of its members (including Renzi himself) belonging to the centre-left camp, providing Italy with an administration that reflects, for the most part, the values of social democracy.

Regarded as an economic moderniser in the same vein as former British prime minister Tony Blair, Renzi has promised to cut bureaucracy, reduce taxes on business, and liberalise the country’s labour markets to improve Italy’s long-term economic prospects. There is also a strong social dimension to Renzi’s plan for Italy, which includes such progressive policy goals as increasing housing affordability, the launching of a school construction programme, and the lengthening of the period in which jobless Italians can claim unemployment benefits for from 8 months to 2 years. Renzi also enjoys the support of most of the electorate, providing him with a strong mandate to carry out his programme.

In austerity-weary Europe, the European centre-left may have found a champion in Renzi, who has not only criticised the emphasis on austerity across the EU (stating that Europe needs to show that it is “capable of investing in growth, and not only in rigor and austerity”) but as prime minister has already introduced or proposed a range of Keynesian-style measures aimed at enhancing people’s spending power and kick-starting the economy. Already this year, tax cuts were introduced for 10 million people earning between 8,000 and 26,000 euros per annum, a measure that boosted consumer confidence to its highest level in over four years. The Renzi Government’s budget for 2015 is also a broadly ambitious one, not only providing for additional tax cuts for households, but spending increases for education, research, and disabled people as well. The budget also provides for the introduction of a cash bonus worth 80 euros a month for parents with children up until the age of three, a notable expansion of family welfare provision that progressives have much to celebrate about. Although the budget at present also includes 15 billion euros worth of expenditure cuts (arguably a reflection of a commitment made by the government to bring down the budget deficit), the fact that it provides additional expenditure for a range of important social services arguably demonstrates the Renzi Government’s commitment to social justice, and its apparent unwillingness to sacrifice egalitarian ends for the sake of saving money.

None of this means, however, that Renzi’s tenure in office has been without controversy. One of Renzi’s signature policies, the Jobs Act, aims at simplifying the country’s labour code and introduce a system in which workers’ safeguards increase with seniority, ostensibly as a means of increasing productivity and reducing the country’s relatively high rate of unemployment. Currently, the rate of joblessness stands at over 12%, highlighting the urgent need for the Italian government to do something to tackle this serious problem. From having spoken to a number of Italians who have come over to England to study or to find work, I have got an insight into how a number of Italians feel about their country’s economic situation. I remember speaking to a young Italian here in England a few years ago who seemed amused when I told her about Italy once having a strong economy, while a shop owner I spoke to a year ago told me that he doesn’t know (in his opinion) how things could get any worse. It is possible that the Jobs Act may provide the various measures needed to strengthen the economy and improve employment opportunities for young Italians, but not everyone thinks that it is a panacea for Italy’s economic difficulties.

Valid criticisms have been made of the proposed legislation, such as that it could lead to an increase in the number of temporary and part-time contracts while eroding safeguards for workers, while critics have also noted that Italy already has the most flexible jobs market among industrial nations. It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the Jobs Act as a reactionary piece of legislation. Not only does it provide for a reduction in the number of temporary contracts, but it also includes provisions for a system of universal unemployment benefits and a national minimum wage. The Jobs Act has already passed the Senate, and currently awaits either passage or rejection in the Chamber of Deputies, which is dominated by Renzi’s Democratic Party. Divisions between left and right parties within the government over the legislation, which was recently amended to placate opponents within the Democratic Party, means that there is no certainty that it will become law in the near future, so only time will tell. Under present conditions, the Jobs Act may be the best that Italian progressives can hope for not only in breathing life into the moribund economy, but also (through improved welfare provisions for jobseekers and a nationwide wage floor) bring about a greater degree of social equity in Italian society.

At a time when most EU member states are governed by the centre-right, Matteo Renzi offers a glimmer of hope for those on the centre-left who wish to see Europe break free from the shackles of austerity and move along a fairer path towards growth. Renzi needs to make sure, however, that he keeps his various promises if he wishes to retain the support of the Italian electorate. Time will tell if Renzi succeeds in fulfilling his ambitious agenda or not, but if he does, and ensures that his government implements economic reforms that do not impact negatively upon the lives of the poor but instead do much to improve them, then he will be remembered in years to come not only as the man who helped turn Italy’s economy around, but as one of the leading social-democratic reformers of modern times.

By Vittorio Trevitt 

Vittorio Trevitt is a Humanities graduate from Brighton with a research interest in local and national politics. He enjoys writing as a means of sharing his knowledge of current affairs and social issues with others, while further developing his research skills.

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Categories: Europe

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