As usual, the Italians are operating outside the box. The “European” elections in Italy weren’t really about Europe, and it’s hard to fit the amazing results into the pattern you’ve been reading about regarding France, Great Britain and the other EU countries.
The elections were nominally for the European Parliament, an honorific body that has no legislative standing (it only ratifies measures from on high, it can’t initiate anything) but good salaries and amazing slush funds for travel, lodging, and associated expenses. This time around, however, the vote was taken to be a referendum on the new prime minister (Matteo Renzi, the 39 year old from the center-left Democratic Party (PD) who has been in office barely three months). His noisiest and most threatening challenger was Beppe Grillo, a foul-mouthed former professional comedian who leads the 5-Star Movement. Grillo called for the total rejection of the political class (above all, Renzi) and promised that, once he won the European vote, he’d demand the government fall and then he would win national political elections and purge the whole political system.
Instead, Renzi carried the PD to unprecedented success: more than 40% of the vote. No Italian party had won 40% since the Christian Democrats in 1958. Moreover, his PD was the only governing party on the continent to improve its standing compared to past elections, and most Italian commentators, including some who expected Grillo to win (he got about 21%, half of Renzi’s) are now saying that Renzi is in full control, and if members of his coalition balk at passing his key reform measures, he can threaten them with new national elections they know they will lose.
Which is quite something for a 39 year old who just a couple of years ago, as mayor of Florence, badly lost the PD’s primary and faced an uncertain future. We seem to have an answer to the basic question about Matteo Renzi. Everyone knew he was smart and ambitious, but nobody knew if he had the charisma, toughness and cunning required to govern Italy. Now we know that he does.
Good news for Italians, who will shortly head the EU for six months, thereby giving Renzi an additional platform to advance his pro-growth programs. Combined with the electoral battering of the bureaucratic parties that have been running Europe, and the strong popular support for nationalist, Eurosceptic leaders in France and Britain (and a mild rebuff to Chancellor Merkel in Germany), there is at least some chance that Brussels’ misguided policies of top-down hypercontrol of European enterprise may be loosened.
It’s suitably ironic that the new star of European politics is a young Florentine, running as leader of the country’s biggest left-wing party, who is universally believed to be a conservative. Maybe even a neoconservative.
Perhaps Scott Walker, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz should campaign as Democrats.