Matteo Renzi. Creative commons/Benedict Clarke.
Last week a spat unfolded between the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the newly installed head of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, bringing to the surface bubbling tensions over ongoing austerity measures in the Eurozone and Italy's stuttering economy.
With a negative growth forecast of 0.3% this year, a recession carrying over into 2015 and recent uncertainty over the liquidity of Italian banks, persistent questions linger as to whether the country can fulfill its commitment to dealing with soveriegn debt. As the threat of the third largest economy in the Eurozone defaulting on its debt still remains largely unassuaged, Brussels has kept a watchful eye on the Renzi government's attempts to modernise and restructure the Italian economy.
Playing to the electorate in a pointed television interview, on the eve of Juncker's first official news conference, Renzi declared that “times have changed for Italy. In Europe I will no longer go and say 'please listen to us', I will no longer go with my cap in hand. As I said to both Barroso and Juncker, I will no longer go to Brussels to have explained to me what to do.”
Caught on the defensive, Juncker responded by telling his 'friend' Renzi “I am not the president of a band of bureaucrats, as perhaps he is. I am the President of the European Commision, an institution that deserves respect”. A reeling Renzi followed back with an angry rejoinder on twitter insisting “for Italy, for its history and its future, I ask for respect. Better yet, I demand the respect that the country deserves #Europe”.
Whilst this public skirmish represents a toughening of relations between Rome and Brussels, and a spectacular one at that, it may tell us more about Renzi's own political problems at home than it does with regard to problems with Europe.
Since Renzi replaced Enrico Letta as the head of the Partito Democratico led government in February, the coalition embarked upon shutting out Beppe Grillo's Movimento Cinque Stelle by breaking the deadlock that has encumbered Italian politics during the last three years of tecnocrati. Renzi formed the Patto del Nazareno with Silvio Berlusconi, an accord which set a legislative agenda to changing the Italian constitution and the electoral system, passing through parliament this summer.
During the height of the political deadlock, Grillo's populist anti-politics was boyant in its affront to Brussels bureaucrats, finding widespread traction by denouncing Eurozone austerity. Since February, the remarkable resurgence of the political centre under Renzi has taken the steam out of Grillo's anti-European rhetoric, creating a balwark for Brussels as much sought after reform to Italian labour law is pushed through parliament. As Jamie Mackay noted, the Jobs Act will introduce flexible employment practices into the Italian economy, making it easier for businesses to hire and fire workers to ammeliorate a flatlining economy.
Whilst the centre ground of Italian politics has been shored up in the past year, contrary to the situation in other stuggling European countries, since the summer Renzi has faced massive mobilisations against his Jobs Act reform from both traditional trade unions and precarious worker movements. CGIL, the Confederation of Italian Workers, has been bulding towards a general strike this December which will see the country grind to a halt as people take to the street.
Maurizio Landini, the leader of CGIL-FIOM, expressed widely-held disbelief at the centre-left goverment's reform to labour law by saying “the government does not represent the interests of workers” in a duel with Renzi over the abolition of Article 18 of the workers statute. Landini has gone on to support a sciopero sociale 'social strike' this Friday, which will bring together diverse groupings of workers, the unemployed and the precariat in cities across the country.
The escalation of extra-parliamentary activism in recent months, whilst posing no direct threat to Renzi's ability to pass legislation, is a sign of the growing popular discontent not only with European austerity but also with the increasingly neo-liberal bent of the Partito Democratico. Renzi has had to fend off accusations of being the heir to Margaret Thatcher, a charge that has routinely been bandied across the Italian media.
With the Grillo problem nullified, the Juncker quarrel is a clever piece of posturing by Renzi, picking up on popular anti-Brussels sentiment to deflect from surging street mobilisation. The Jobs Act legislation should pass parliament in the coming month, subject to the Berlusconi alliance holding strong, but the climate in which this legislation is passed could well determine the ground upon which politics is waged for Renzi in the future.
Whether he can continue to justify himself as a 'social democrat' in a time of economic transformation and social upheaval remains to be seen.