Testy Italian leader wants to turn up the heat on Germany's Merkel

Before assuming office nearly two years ago, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was a rarity among Italian politicians in refusing to engage in Germany-bashing to explain his country's economic woes.

He used to argue that Italians first needed to clean up their house by tackling endemic debt and governance problems before complaining about Berlin-influenced European Union austerity policies that prolonged recessions in southern Europe.

His tune has now changed.

In an interview last week in business paper Il Sole 24 Ore, looking ahead to his Friday meeting in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Renzi said it was in her interest to accept "a stronger Italy and a less selfish Germany."

The remark came in the wake of a litany of complaints in Renzi's government about the EU being rigged in Germany's favour; public spats with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker; and the replacement of Italy's ambassador to Brussels.

"European institutions are struggling with everything: migration, growth, energy, security," Renzi told Il Sole 24 Ore. "Italy is not flexing its muscles, but should stop being so provincial and keep thinking that Brussels is infallible."

Behind Renzi's calls for a "change" in EU economic policies lies a set of demands for Italy: more slack with public spending, tax cuts and bonuses for businesses and households to support its limping economic recovery, and aid for banks saddled with bad debts.

He has also lambasted Brussels for the impasse over the EU migrant crisis and for blocking the Italy-backed South Stream pipeline from Russia, but not doing the same with Nord Stream, a project championed by Germany and the Netherlands.

One of his aides, speaking to dpa anonymously, said Renzi feels entitled to a payback from the EU after delivering some of the reforms long expected from Italy, such as an overhaul of the labour market and constitutional changes to reduce political instability.

He also suggested that Renzi now feels in a strong position to raise his voice, while Spain is hobbled by post-election chaos, France is preoccupied by terrorism and the National Front, Britain is considering leaving the bloc and right-wing populists rule Poland.

"He is ready to risk it all, I am convinced of that," the aide said, predicting that the Italian premier will consciously turn into an ever more awkward partner for Merkel and other EU peers unless he gets his way.

But several analysts have warned the obstinate 41-year-old leader against overplaying his hand, noting that Italy's economic situation remains precarious, and EU diplomacy normally require smoother tactics.

"I am not sure that EU powerbrokers appreciate someone who is already a nuisance today," said Francesco Galietti, founder of the Policy Sonar think tank. He predicted that Renzi might get "out of control" once constitutional reforms strengthening his executive are approved.

Angelo Bolaffi, Italy's leading academic on German affairs, said Merkel does not respond well to troublemakers, and, referring to migration, added: "Is it worth antagonizing Italy's most valuable ally, especially when the chancellor faces huge challenges?"

Both Bolaffi and Galietti suggested that Renzi's shrill moves are primarily for domestic consumption - a ploy to dredge support from populist opposition parties like Northern League and the Five Star Movement - rather than a serious bid to change the course of the EU.

Caroline Kanter, director of the Rome office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank linked to Merkel's Christian Democratic Party, was more charitable about Renzi, but said "polemics do not help" and urged Rome and Berlin to cooperate in a European spirit.

"The [Italian] tone towards Germany and Europe has indeed worsened in recent months. Nevertheless, I think, this should not be overstated. The meetings of the past have shown that a constructive dialogue between Angela Merkel and Matteo Renzi is possible," she said.

Last update: Wed, 27/01/2016 - 15:02
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