Rome—What if the real villains in Europe today were not the far right, xenophobic and anti-EU parties, the UKIP, the Front National, the Lega Nord, Golden Dawn and the German neo-Nazis who captured so many frantic headlines after the recent European parliamentary elections? What if instead the most dangerous extremists were those tight-lipped, conservative burghers of the EU liberal and popular coalitions, the true believers in austerity, the water-carriers for neoliberalism’s holy war, the ones determined to destroy the European economy to save it?
In such a light, the Old World will need a very determined left if the destructive policies of the outgoing EU commission, so long dominated by conservative German opinion, are to change. At the moment, Italy’s Matteo Renzi, whose Partito Democratico (PD) got 41 percent of the vote in a three-way race in May’s EU elections, is probably the politically strongest and most energetic voice for change within the mainstream, governing parties in Europe (now that, post-elections, the once-majority Popular Party and its junior ally the Liberals must share power with the Socialists in the EU parliament and commission.)
But how left wing is Renzi, really? Among Italy’s old left—in the PD and in the smaller independent left groups like Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL)—Renzi is sometimes cast as a closet Christian Democrat, an able politician, somewhat autocratic, somewhat opportunistic, not really a progressive. The left-wing paper Il Manifesto recently defined him as a “populist technocrat,” meaning something like a neoliberal with demagogic crowd skills. Beppe Grillo of the anti-government, anti-Euro Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) lumps Renzi with the rest of the discredited, corrupt political class known as la casta; during an unforgettable meeting between the two, streamed live for the benefit of M5S voters, Grillo bellowed, “You are not credible! You are not credible!” across the table at Renzi for the better part of an hour. The only Italians who admit to admiring Renzi outright are his political enemies in the Berlusconi camp, perhaps hoping that flattery will ease their rapidly collapsing political fortunes. Silvio Berlusconi himself, meeting Renzi in a consultation much criticized inside the PD, is supposed to have said, “But Renzi, how can someone as clever as you stand the Communists?”
The thirty-nine-year-old Renzi was elected PD party secretary in primaries in December and named prime minister in February (replacing party colleague Enrico Letta and his government with a swiftly assembled new cabinet based on the same political forces). He does not hail from Italy’s traditional left, the former Italian Communist Party (PCI), backbone of the PD. Although he grew up in the stoutly Communist region of Tuscany, Renzi’s family was Catholic, his father a Christian Democrat, and he was an active boy scout (a Catholic scout, for in Italy the Catholic Church superintends most of the scouting movement). Elected mayor of Florence with the PD in 2009, Renzi soon made a name nationally by attacking the old guard of the party in no uncertain terms. In speech after speech he urged they be rottamati—scrapped, sent to the junk yard. His verbal style was disconcertingly direct and unadorned; it reminded some of Berlusconi’s speech, and like Berlusconi’s it was a direct attack on the old left’s more elegant and principled (some would say windy and abstract) rhetorical style.