Just when it seemed that European politics could get no harder for Angela Merkel, a new complication has emerged in the tangled world of the EU.
The German chancellor is already involved in a head-splitting row over the probable appointment of Jean Claude Juncker as the next European Commission president. This week while Ms Merkel was in Brazil watching Germany’s opening victory of the World Cup, the first big split emerged in her ruling coalition.
Sigmar Gabriel, her deputy, pounced on Ms Merkel’s absence to challenge her eurozone economic policy, in an intervention that has the potential to sour relations long after the original dispute is forgotten.
Now that most of the results have come in from the European parliament elections, let’s take a family photograph of Europe’s presidents, chancellors and prime ministers. Who have the broadest smiles on their faces, and who are sobbing into their handkerchiefs?
Among the European Union’s six biggest states – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK – the happiest leader must surely be Matteo Renzi, Italy’s premier. He won, and won big. Mr Renzi (above) demolished the notion that Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five-Star Movement is on an unstoppable roll. He also inflicted an emphatic defeat on Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party.
Even though it was not a national election, the youthful Mr Renzi can now claim to have a mandate of sorts for the political, economic and social reforms that he knows are necessary to modernise Italy. This is not to say that he will succeed – the power of entrenched anti-reform interests in Italy is formidable. But maybe he has a better chance than he did 48 hours ago.
According to the old saying, if you knew how a sausage was made, you’d never eat one. It is no easier on the stomach to watch the political intrigues that lie behind the formation of Italian governments.
A new government is on its way in Rome because Matteo Renzi, leader of the centre-left Democratic party, has decided to pull the plug on Enrico Letta’s premiership. It is difficult to see who other than the youthful, super-ambitious Renzi will replace Letta.
For Italy’s eurozone partners, this is a fateful moment. If Renzi, as prime minister, fails to deliver the reforms that European policy makers know are essential to keeping Italy in the eurozone, the likelihood that some other Italian politician will do so are exceedingly small.
But Renzi’s very public political assassination of Letta, his party comrade, was a kind of theatrical “stab in the front” that may one day return to haunt him. For if these are the methods he deems suitable to clear his path to national office, it is reasonable to assume that they will sooner or later be used against him.
Matteo Renzi (Getty)
Outside Italy there is an understandable enthusiasm for the constitutional and electoral reform proposals of Matteo Renzi, leader of the centre-left Democratic party. Italy unblocked – at last! Inside the nation itself, there is more caution and scepticism. This reflects the experience of Italians, who have travelled such roads in the past without being rewarded with better government and a better class of political leaders.
Renzi, 39, and Silvio Berlusconi, 77, leader of the revived conservative Forza Italia party, struck a deal this month which is beguiling in its simplicity.
(OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images)
An optimist would draw much inspiration from Matteo Renzi’s convincing victory in Sunday’s primary elections for the leadership of Italy’s ruling centre-left Democratic party (PD). Doesn’t the success of the 38-year-old Florence mayor prove that a new generation of vigorous, reform-minded politicians is, at long last, replacing the squabbling, incompetent and sometimes corrupt oldsters who have presided over the nation’s decline over the past 20 years?
(FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
As the FT’s former man in Rome, I find it poignant to see Silvio Berlusconi battling this week to hold together the political movement he launched 20 years ago. The billionaire Milanese entrepreneur did not seriously contemplate a political career until 1993, when he realised it would be the most effective way to protect his business interests. In fact, one of his closest associates once confided – perhaps only half-jokingly – that, if Berlusconi had not formed Forza Italia, the boss and his loyalists would have ended up either in prison or hanging lifeless à la Roberto Calvi under a London bridge.
In its various incarnations Forza Italia is sometimes depicted as one of the most formidable vote-gathering and coalition-building political machines of modern Europe.
By Catherine Contiguglia
It seemed an era of Italian politics came to an end with the announcement that Italy’s supreme court had upheld a four-year sentence against Silvio Berlusconi for tax fraud.
Though the 76-year-old centre-right politician will not be going to jail due to his age, he could be placed under house arrest for a year, will not be able to hold public office for as long as five years, will not be able to run for elected office for six years and could be voted out of his current position as a senator.
Emerging from the ashes has been a major part of Berlusconi’s public career and, since the ruling, Berlusconi has assured his supporters he still has more plans up his sleeve. However, many believe this most recent ruling could be the definitive end of Berlusconi in politics.
Beppe Grillo on the campaign trail
Two months ago Beppe Grillo came out as the big winner of Italy’s general elections. His Five Star Movement, which was created only in 2009, came within a whisker of becoming Italy’s single largest political force. His vote tally in the Lower House was an extraordinary 8.7m, more than Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party and only a few hundred thousand votes less than the centre-left Democratic Party.
Situation vacant? Mario Monti (Getty)
There were two big job vacancies in Rome last month. The Catholic Church began looking for a new pope after the shock resignation of Benedict XVI. Meanwhile, Italians went about the business of picking a new head of government who would end Mario Monti’s technocratic interlude.
The Vatican is not exactly known for its speedy decision-making. Yet it only took the conclave of cardinals a couple of days to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new head of the church. Pope Francis – as he is now – is already making headlines with his new message centred on the need for a humbler and more austere church.
On the other side of the Tiber, Italian politicians are still struggling to choose a new prime minister. Today and tomorrow, President Giorgio Napolitano is meeting party leaders and other institutional figures to talk about what to do next. But Italy-watchers do not expect white smoke to come out of the presidential palace any time soon.
Last month’s inconclusive elections have produced a three-way deadlock in the Senate between Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left coalition, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right alliance, and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. The only solution to the impasse is a government that is backed by at least two of these forces. But this trilemma has no easy solution.
By Gideon Rachman
Some months ago, I was discussing the euro crisis with a high-ranking US diplomat. “It’s back to the 1930s, isn’t it?” said my companion with a mixture of gloom and relish. “The extremists are on the rise.”