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Matteo Renzi: How the one-time great hope of the Italian left fell from grace

Former Italian prime minster Matteo Renzi was once the darling of Italian politics but on Monday announced his resignation as head of the ruling centre-left Democratic Party after an embarrassingly low result in Sunday's election.

Matteo Renzi: How the one-time great hope of the Italian left fell from grace
Matteo Renzi pictured during his resignation speech. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

His decision to quit as party head is an alarming change in fortune for a man who just a few years ago was hailed as a reformer when he became Italy's youngest prime minister at the age of 39 in 2014.

The centre-left coalition led by Renzi's Democratic Party (PD) picked up just 22 percent of the vote, lagging behind a right-wing coalition that won 37 percent and also trailing the Five Star populist movement which scooped up 32 percent of the national vote.

The PD's collapse is a huge blow to Italy's centre-left, in power since 2013, effectively ruling it out of having any say in the country's future government.

The result is also particularly humiliating for Renzi, whose party clinched 40 percent of the vote in the 2014 European elections. Announcing his departure from the post, he said he would content himself with his new role as senator in his native Florence.

Italy left in limbo after populist surge in election
Journalists wait in the League's press room. Photo: Piero Cruciatti/AFP

“In a matter of months, Matteo became Italy's most unpopular leader,” L'Espresso weekly newspaper wrote recently.

Often accused of an arrogant or authoritarian leadership style, the former premier never managed to deliver on his ambitious promises to revamp Italy and cast away the political old guard during his time at the helm.

In 2012, with his sights set on party leadership, he vowed to make Italy more meritocratic. But today he is often accused of surrounding himself with his chosen few, frequently fellow Tuscans, who have done little to boost his reputation.

Renzi, whose only previous governing role had been as mayor of Florence, became prime minister in 2014 aged just 39.

Showing a tireless work ethic while his wife, Agnese, and three children stayed home in Tuscany, the former boy scout who became known as “the scrapper” came to office with a vow to revive Italy's lethargic economy.

He managed to deliver his flagship labour market reforms and modest growth, while overseeing the granting of legal recognition to gay relationships for the first time. But the recovery was not strong enough to generate any real political dividends.

Renzi alienated many on his party's far left, who broke away in 2017 to become part of the leftwing “Liberi e Uguali” (Free and Equal) alliance, also candidates in the upcoming vote.

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His domestic fall from grace came in December 2016, when Italians rejected his flagship proposal for constitutional reform in a referendum.

His dream of a “simpler, more competitive and more courageous” Italy in tatters, Renzi resigned as prime minister. Despite taking a backseat, the energetic reformer maintained a strong media presence and few doubted his desire to return to the top spot.

However, the disappointing result in Sunday's election meant Renzi did not get the second chance he had hoped for.

By Olivier Baube

For members

ENERGY

What does the shut-off of Russian gas supplies mean for Italy?

After Russian energy giant Gazprom suspended gas deliveries to Italy on Saturday, many are wondering what consequences the stoppage will have on the country’s energy supplies.

What does the shut-off of Russian gas supplies mean for Italy?

What’s going on?

Over the past three days, Italy has received none of the gas supplies it expected from Russian energy giant Gazprom. 

The impasse officially started last Saturday, when Gazprom announced it would not be able to deliver gas to Italy due to “the impossibility of gas transport through Austria” – Russian gas supplies are delivered to Italy through the Trans Austria Gas pipeline (TAG), which reaches into Italian territory near Tarvisio, Friuli Venezia-Giulia. 

READ ALSO: Russia suspends gas to Italy after ‘problem’ in Austria

Though Gazprom originally attributed the problem to Austrian gas grid operators refusing to confirm “transport nominations”, Austria’s energy regulator E-Control said that the Russian energy mammoth had failed to comply with new contractual agreements whose introduction had been “known to all market actors for months”. 

Additional information about the incident only emerged on Monday, when Claudio Descalzi, the CEO of Italy’s national energy provider ENI, said that supplies had been suspended after Gazprom failed to pay a 20-million-euro guarantee to Austrian gas carrier Gas Connect. 

Descalzi also added that ENI was ready to step in and deposit the guarantee itself in order to unblock deliveries to Italy.

Logo of Italian energy regulator ENI.

Italian energy regulator ENI said it was ready to pay Austrian gas carriers a 20-million-euro guarantee to unblock deliveries. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

READ ALSO: Italy’s ENI ready to pay guarantee to unblock Russian gas

At the time of writing, however, no agreement between ENI, Gas Connect and Gazprom has yet been reached, with the stoppage expected to continue until Wednesday at the very least.

What would an indefinite stoppage mean for Italy’s upcoming winter season?

Though energy giant ENI appears to be confident that a compromise between all the involved parties will be reached shortly, the “indefinite shutdown” of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in early September is somewhat of a menacing precedent. 

After fears of a long-term supply suspension cropped up over the weekend, outgoing Ecological Transition Minister Roberto Cingolani publicly reassured Italians that “barring any catastrophic events, Italy will have the whole of winter covered”.

It isn’t yet clear what exactly Cingolani meant by “catastrophic”, but the latest available data seem to suggest that Italy wouldn’t have to resort to emergency measures, chiefly gas rationing, should Gazprom halt deliveries indefinitely. 

Italian Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani.

Outgoing Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani said that, “barring any catastrophic events”, Italy will have enough gas supplies for the winter. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

In 2021, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Italy received around 20 billion cubic metres of Russian gas per year, which accounted for about 40 percent of the country’s annual gas imports. 

But, thanks to the supply diversification strategy carried out by outgoing PM Mario Draghi and his cabinet over the past few months, Russian gas currently accounts for, in the words of ENI’s CEO Claudio Descalzi, only “about nine to 10 percent” of Italian gas imports.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Draghi criticises Germany over latest energy plan

Granted, Italy still receives (or, given the current diplomatic deadlock, expects to receive) a non-negligible total of 20 million cubic metres of Russian gas per day. But, should supply lines between Rome and Moscow be shut off until further notice, Italy could fall back on existing gas stocks to meet winter consumption demands. 

Last Wednesday, Cingolani announced that the country had already filled up 90 percent of its national gas stocks – Italy has nine storage plants for an overall storage capacity of 17 billion cubic metres of gas – and the government was now working to bring that number up by an additional two or three percentage points.

These supplies, Cingolani said, are set to give Italy “greater flexibility” with respect to potential “spikes in winter consumption”.

Gas storage station in Loenhout, Belgium.

Italy has nine storage plants for an overall storage capacity of 17 billion cubic metres of gas. Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

Finally, Italy is expected to receive an additional four billion cubic metres of gas from North Europe over the winter months – deliveries which will be complemented by the first shipments of LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) from Egypt.

Both of these developments are expected to further reinforce Italy’s position in the energy market for the cold season.

What about the long-term consequences of an indefinite stoppage?

An indefinite shut-off of Russian gas supplies would effectively anticipate Italy’s independence from Moscow by nearly two years – Draghi’s plan has always been to wean the country off Russian gas by autumn 2024.

However, the Italian government’s strategy is (or, perhaps, was, as a new government is about to be formed) centred around a gradual phasing out of Russian supplies. As such, although not immediately problematic, a ‘cold-turkey’ scenario might create supply issues for Italy at some point during 2023.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How much are energy prices rising in Italy this autumn?

Granted, Algeria, whose supplies currently make up 36 percent of Italy’s national demand, is expected to ramp up gas exports and provide Rome with nine billion cubic metres of gas in 2023.

But, even when combined with LNG supplies from several African partners – these should add up to a total of four billion cubic metres of gas in 2023 – there’s a risk that Algerian gas might not be able to replace Russian gas on its own.

An employee works at the Tunisian Sergaz company, that controls the Tunisian segment of the Trans-Mediterranean (Transmed) pipeline, through which natural gas flows from Algeria to Italy.

Algerian gas supplies, which reach Italy through the Trans-Med pipeline (pictured above), might not be enough to replace Russian gas in 2023. Photo by Fethi BELAID / AFP

Therefore, should an indefinite shut-off be the ultimate outcome of the current diplomatic incident between ENI, Austria’s Gas Connect and Russia’s Gazprom, Italy, this time in the person of new PM Giorgia Meloni, might have to close deals with other suppliers or ask existing suppliers to ramp up production. 

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