Opinion

Renzi, "Il Centro" and the European elections of June 2024

Matteo Renzi
photo_camera PHOTO/FILE - Matteo Renzi

Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, currently a senator for Campania and a member of the "Terzo Polo" parliamentary group, is definitely going to the European institutions. This has led him to make his candidacy official in view of the elections to the European Parliament that will take place in June 2024, where such important posts as the European Commission (president, vice-presidents and up to 27 different commissions), the European Council, the composition of the European Parliament and even the person in charge of directing foreign and defence policy are to be renewed. Only the presidency of the European Central Bank (ECB), in the hands of the French Christine Lagarde since October 2019 and with a mandate until 2027, will be left out. 

Matteo Renzi, who turned 48 on 11 January, was once the "child prodigy" of transalpine politics. In February 2014, he received from the then President of the Republic Napolitano the "incarico" of forming a government in a legislature that had begun in March 2013 and would end in December 2017. Until then, Renzi, a Christian Democrat by training, but secretary general of the main centre-left party (the Democratic Party, PD), had been the most prominent member of the city council of his birth, Florence, of which he had become mayor in 2009, although he had actually grown up on the outskirts of the city (in the small town of Rignano sull'Arno).  

But, after overwhelming in the PD primaries held in December 2013 (he received 70% of the votes), and in view of the scant activity of the first executive of the legislature (the Letta government, April 2013-February 2014), he managed to win the confidence of the head of state to form a government that, to everyone's surprise, lasted no less than 1,020 days, a figure only surpassed by the 2nd and 4th Berlusconi governments and the 1st Craxi government. A period in which it managed to control public finances, return to the path of growth and put sovereign debt problems behind it once and for all. However, the "star" measure of his government, which was none other than constitutional reform, and with which he intended to put an end to the so-called "perfect bicameralism" (two chambers with equal legislative capacity) by converting the Senate into a "Chamber of the Regions" (which, moreover, would go from the then 315 members to just 100) constituted his end as "premier".  

Because, once the parliamentary process was over, Renzi had to submit the constitutional reform to a "referendum" which, held on 2 December 2016, received a resounding "no" vote: 59% of votes against to 41% in favour. Something, moreover, more than expected, since Renzi submitted his reform without the support of a single parliamentary group: indeed, part of his party (the current formed by ex-communists and socialists) even went so far as to campaign for a "no" vote. Consequence: Renzi's immediate resignation and the appointment of the Gentiloni government (December 2016-May 2018), which would bring to an end the 17th Legislature in the history of the Italian Republic, founded in June 1946. 

From this point onwards, Renzi began to experience a real free fall in the polls in terms of voting intentions: although he managed to win back the PD's General Secretariat in June 2017 (and again with 70% of the vote), in the general elections held in March 2018 he did not even reach 20% of the vote, being outpolled by almost fifteen points by the winning party (the Five Star Movement, which, incidentally, would end up becoming a real fiasco). 

Despite this, Renzi wanted to continue trying to play a leading role in national political life and to this end founded his own party, Italia Viva (September 2019). Made up of almost 50 MPs from the Democratic Party (PD), Renzi got off to a good start, winning an initial support of around 6 per cent of the electorate. But that 6% quickly turned into little more than 5% and, throughout the 18th Legislature, in most polls his "brand new" party was placed in the extra-parliamentary zone, as it did not reach the 3% of votes needed to enter both the lower and upper houses. Finally, an "in extremis" alliance with his former Minister for Economic Development (the Roman Calenda) gave him the possibility of repeating as a member of parliament in the current legislature, although now he would not be a senator for Tuscany (his homeland), but for Campania. The almost 8% of the votes won by the so-called "Terzo Polo" allowed him to continue to hold a seat in Parliament, but the resounding victory of the centre-right (42% of the votes between Fratelli d'Italia, Forza Italia and the Lega) left Renzi and his supporters as mere extras in national politics. 

This element, together with an unequivocally pro-European trajectory, is what has led Renzi to consider redirecting his political career to the European Parliament. He has extraordinarily important support, which is none other than that of the President of the French Republic (Macron), in whose group ("Renew Europe") Renzi's party is included. Moreover, he knows that he can count on the support of the current government, since both "premier" Meloni and deputy prime minister Salvini would consider it a "relief" to get rid of an uncomfortable, controversial and extraordinarily skilful colleague for five years (the duration of a European Parliament legislature). 

Does Renzi have a real chance of winning a significant level of support in the European elections? The answer is "yes". For transalpine politics has become polarised over the past year: on the left, the Democratic Party, led by its new leader (the Bologna-born Ely Schlein), is shifting its party towards very radical positions, as has been seen in relation to, for example, the war in Ukraine, and is also in favour of making a pact with a Five Star Movement that has completely faded but still maintains a good percentage of the vote because in the southernmost areas it still receives a lot of votes (it is the only hope left for some to recover the so-called "citizens' income"). And on the right, Forza Italia, which in the September 2022 elections received only 8.1% of the vote, is clearly going down, while Meloni prefers to form a "duo" with Matteo Salvini, who, although widely reviled among the EU parliamentary class, guarantees stability for his government now that it has to face a new serious migration problem, a reduction in public spending and a significant degree of hostility from part of the EU world, which does not forgive Meloni for having historically been a "Eurosceptic". 

With the polarisation of political life, Renzi, with this aggregation of parties known as "Il Centro" (including Italia Viva, Azione and Piu Europa), can expect to win a significant number of votes, since the reformist sector of the PD, widely dissatisfied with Schlein's management, could vote for Renzi and his followers, and the same could happen with what is left of Forza Italia, since its current leader, the deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister Antonio Tajani, has both a predicament among EU politicians and a very low level of support in his country, which barely knows him after having spent no less than 24 years in the European Parliament, of which he became president between January 2017 and July 2019. 

And what privileged position can Renzi think of to relaunch his political career? Here it is more difficult to get it right. He cannot be president of the European Parliament, a post reserved for those who have been MEPs for several terms. Nor can he be President of the Commission, since, although the holder of this post must demonstrate leadership skills (and Renzi has them), he must also show a flexibility that is not one of the main strengths of the former President of the Council of Ministers. Likewise, he cannot be called upon to lead foreign and defence policy, since, while he was 'premier', he achieved this same post for his former foreign affairs minister (Federica Mogherini), so putting himself where he once placed one of his own would surely be a step backwards in his career. 

So, if there is one post where Renzi's profile fits perfectly, it is that of President of the European Council, among other reasons because it is the only important post that has never been headed by an Italian (so far there have been two Belgians, Van Rompuy and Michel, and one Pole, Tusk); and because it would give him a great deal of international prominence. Let us remember, in this regard, that the President of the Council is not only in permanent contact with the 27 governments of the European Union, but also holds the rank of President of the Commission, which would place him within the core of power of the European construction, which, by the way, is already on its way to 75 years of life. 

Let's see how the campaign that will lead to new European elections develops, but Renzi has seen clearly that he had no more chance in his country and that the best thing was to try to "make a career" in the European institutions that he has defended since he became "premier" back in February 2014. From here on, the politics of the eurozone's third largest economy will continue to move between Meloni and Salvini, his two generation mates and those who are assured of a "maggioranza" of government until, in principle, September 2027. The time has come for the most pro-European Renzi, after an uninterrupted decade of strong protagonism in national life. 

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is a lecturer at the Camilo José Cela University (UCJC) and author of the book 'Historia de la Italia republicana, 1946-2021' (Sílex Ediciones, 2021).