Will Italy oust France as Germany's EU ally?

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel shakes hands with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi after a Berlin press conference in March. Photo: John Macdougall/AFP
08:38 CEST+02:00
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi impressed Europe earlier this week when he won a resounding victory in the EU elections. With a far-right win in France leaving the political class in turmoil, The Local asks if Italy could become Germany's new partner.

Italians woke to remarkable news on Monday morning: Italy was back in Europe’s good books.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) had won 40.8 percent of the European Parliament vote, sweeping the Eurosceptics aside and securing the stability of his government.

Gone was the chorus of jibes against Italy, where years of political turmoil and economic strife have seen the country styled as the wayward child of Europe.

Meanwhile, Europe looked disapprovingly towards France.

Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front (FN) had won the elections with 25 percent of the vote, prompting fears of an anti-EU alliance forming in the heart of Europe.

READ MORE: EU elections: France reacts to Le Pen victory

While European leaders remained diplomatic in their reaction to the results, it was not difficult to see a new confidence in Renzi when he arrived in Brussels for talks yesterday. In both stature and political weight he appeared taller than François Hollande, France’s defeated president, who stood beside Renzi somewhat deflated.

This may be more than a momentary shifts - a sign that Italy is finally standing up as a respected political force in Europe and one which could replace France as a key partner to Germany.

“There’s clearly been a psychological change. Renzi is going to EU meetings with a bounce in his step, having fought back the Eurosceptics,” Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist magazine and co-creator of Girlfriend in a Coma, a recent documentary about Italy, tells The Local.

“I think the leaders of Europe need allies and endorsement from the sort of countries and politicians that voters seem to react well to. What Renzi says has some extra weight."

Marine Le Pen's National Front (FN) won the EU elections in France. Photo: Pierre Andrieu/AFP

The Italian premier was one of the few European leaders to win the vote over the Eurosceptics, along with Merkel, whose Christian Democrats (CDU) won 35.3 percent, a victory shared with political partner, the Christian Social Democrat (CSU).

But rather than shun Hollande in favour of Renzi, the German chancellor may start paying even closer attention to France, according to Michael Wohlgemuth, director of think tank Open Europe Berlin.

“Merkel will have to try hard to strengthen ties with both France and Italy,” Wohlgemuth says.

“The French government seems extremely unstable. They have reforms in the pipeline but it seems that they might be willing to use the EU and its austerity programme as a scapegoat for economic malaise in France,” he tells The Local.

As a result, while Italy’s Renzi can now be regarded as “a reliable statesman and partner for Germany”, Wohlgemuth says Germany will continue working closely with France in a bid to “keep it on track”.

Italy can play the ‘honest broker’

Renzi’s approach to economic reform could also impact Italy’s position in Europe over the coming months.

According to Emmott, Italy’s prime minister could gain credibility “in trying to be an honest broker about the relaxation of austerity” in Europe.

“Italy’s main advantage is that it has a reformist prime minister, whereas France doesn’t have a government that has an obviously coherent reform plan,” Emmott says.

Only last month Italy approached the EU to plead for more time to balance its books, with Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan arguing the government was taking corrective action which would achieve growth in the long-term.

READ MORE: Italy asks EU for more time to meet debt target

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With his new-found influence Renzi could choose to ally with France and other countries, pushing Germany to adjust its position on austerity, Emmott suggests.

While this could be beneficial for Italy, Wohlgemuth says there is a “big fear” that “a stronger Italian and a weakened French government might join forces with others, such as Greece and Spain, to form a coalition against ‘austerity’.”

But he adds Renzi could also go the other way, working with Merkel to develop free trade agreements and a single market for the service industry - areas which would have such great support in France.

A key post-election test for Renzi will come on July 1st, when Italy takes up the presidency of the EU Council.

The six-month presidency can give Italy some “extra agenda-setting” clout, says Emmott.

From Berlin, Wohlgemuth remarks that the limited powers of a rotating presidency mean Renzi will not, however, be setting the EU’s programme. But when it comes to discussion of reform, Italy will be in a stronger position to “contribute and profit from an open discussion - that might be more open now than before the elections.”

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