On July 1st 2014, Italy will take over the six-month rotating Presidency of the Council of Ministers of the European Union. This comes at a pivotal time for Italy and the rest of the European Union (EU) as on July 1st a new Parliament will commence, on October 31st the Commission will complete its mandate, and on November 30th the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, will complete his term.
It’s been a long time since an Italian leader as charismatic and strong handed as Matteo Renzi has ascended to power. At the age of 39, Renzi overtook Benito Mussolini as the youngest person to become Prime Minister since Italy’s unification in 1861. Winning the largest victory for any Italian government since the 1950’s, Renzi is one of the few European leaders to defy the rise of Eurosceptic parties and emerge stronger from the vote on May 25th. His strong pro-European stance, charismatic nature, and ability to connect with people make him an interesting case for the next Presidency.
The Presidency’s work programme has not yet been finalised by the Government of Italy and it is unknown whether it will be released prior to the Parliament’s plenary session on July 2nd. However, the annual report on Italy’ participation in EU matters for 2014, and statements made by ministers, diplomats, and Renzi himself, give us a good indication of what to expect for the next six months. The three main overarching themes will be: growth, citizens, and external dimensions.
For growth and employment, Renzi has stated: “We think that it is clear that we need to move beyond these very strict rules and the one-size-fits all approach” towards “policies to support [and] strengthen the national structural reforms when they are in process”. Italy’s priority is to stimulate weak economic growth through increased budget flexibility and move from austerity towards growth. With Italy struggling to pull out of five years of on-off recession and youth unemployment at more than 40 percent, Renzi has insisted that more budget austerity on its own will simply fuel voter anger and social unrest.
Migration will also be an important issue for Italy. Last October, 368 shipwrecked migrants perished in an accident off Lampedusa, and since then Italian authorities have been asking the EU for more financial support to improve the country’s emergency reception capacity. Furthermore, the Italians are unhappy with the EU’s asylum rules which place individual Member States, rather than the EU as a whole, responsible for asylum seekers. Renzi stated that: “On the one hand you have got Northern European countries that are receiving a very high number of asylum requests, much higher than the EU average, and on the other hand you have countries which are fully exposed and isolated from the rest of the EU in facing massive arrivals of human beings.” Bridging this gap through a common approach to migration, asylum seekers, and integration will be Italy’s goal.
This year, Italy is hosting EXPO 2015, choosing the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”, where it will focus on themes of nutrition and resources. The Italian Presidency envisages hosting some of the high level meetings in Milan, especially Council meetings concerning agriculture, energy, and the environment.
Finally, Italy is ready to support the EP’s overhaul of telecom rules despite increasing criticism from key corporate players and certain Member States. Renzi is ready to support telecommunication reform through the creation of a digital single market. Italy will have to take over the very complex negotiations on Data Protection as well as prioritize the Payments Package, including the Payment Service Directive and a separate Regulation on Multilateral Interchange Fees.