Continuity and Change


Moises Costa lists out what to expect from the 2014 Italian Presidency of the Council of the European Union

Heavily applauded at the inaugural speech for the new semester of the Italian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, Italy's Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, showed a much-needed enthusiasm towards not only continuity, but also change. He asked if Europe were to take a selfie today, what the image would look like. According to Renzi, much of the world would probably see tiredness and even boredom, but the new Italian Presidency is determined to help alter that. But can the 11th Italian Presidency make a difference? The Europhile Mr Renzi has led some to believe they can.

The conjuncture is not on the Italian Presidency's side, however. First, there is the issue of time available to produce results. With the August recess and the July and December holidays, the Italians are left with about four months of actual time to work. Second, a change in the Presidency of the Council of the European Union is not the only EU institutional rotation happening this semester. A new Commission will be formed in November, new rapporteurs need to be appointed, and a new European Parliament was composed almost at the same time as the change in presidencies. To top it off, there is a new Qualified Majority Voting system for the European Council and its new president will be elected at the end of November.

Renzi has also just become the head of government in Italy, which means he needs to devote a lot of attention to his domestic audience while he takes advantage of his ‘honeymoon’ period. He came into power as the youngest prime minister of the post-unification period in Italy with a strong platform of reforms and renovation, which has created high expectations. If Italy wants to leave its mark during this semester’s Presidency, it will need to fight against time and bring together institutional actors, who are also trying to leave their own marks as they enter the already convoluted EU system.

In any case, the Italian Presidency seems to think the 'glass is half full' and has already demonstrated a high degree of energy from the outset. Sandro Gozi, who is the Italian Undersecretary for Europe and Renzi’s right-hand for the Italian Presidency, has welcomed the confluence of changes in Europe and sees this semester as the starting point for a longer-term ‘rebirth’ of Europe and even Italy. To achieve its somewhat lofty goals, the 2014 Italian Presidency has set three main focus areas for its strategic framework:

• A job-friendly Europe: delivering economic growth;

• Moving Europe closer to its citizens: an area of democracy, rights and freedom; and

• Taking Europe’s foreign policy to a higher gear.

In order to successfully explore the three areas above, the Italian Presidency has taken a much more political and less technocratic approach to relevant issues, which matches the Italian political personality and Renzi’s personal style. But will this strategy work? In order to answer that question, one must go deeper than the three strategic areas, which are purposefully broad in nature, like good politicians would have it.

Economic Growth and Employment

The slogan 'without growth there is no future' is the core of how the Italians are facing this semester in power. At the heart of the Italian efforts is the reinforcement, or even revival, of the Europe 2020 strategy. One of the key initiatives is Digital Innovation, which the Presidency believes can help boost growth and job opportunities. The Trio Presidency, which is composed of Italy and the two subsequent Presidencies to be held by Latvia and Luxembourg, have already made digital innovation a long-term goal, with the intent of reaching agreement among all the 28 EU member states on both the Connected Continent Package (TSM) and the Network and Information Security directive (NIS).

Regarding employment, the Presidency has indicated that its biggest priority is the youth. For this reason, the educational agenda of the semester will match the employment objective of helping young Europeans secure jobs. Employment opportunities should also be enhanced by better labour mobility within the Union, another policy area to be tackled by the Italians.

The green economy is another major priority for this semester. This marries well with the theme for next year’s EXPO 2015, which will happen in Milan and has the slogan of ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.’ In trying to bring the event into the forefront of economic possibilities, Milan, and not Rome, will be the Italian Presidency’s major centre this semester.

Institutional Effectiveness and Legitimacy

The Italian Presidency's strategy to provide greater legitimacy to the EU among its members, while helping build greater institutional effectiveness is by rediscovering a common cultural identity for the region. In his inaugural speech, Mr Renzi declared that Europe is a community and not just a geographic expression. This sentiment is the driving message when trying to bring the institution closer to its citizens, while helping the system work more efficiently.

Immigration Policy and Defence Cooperation

Since Italy is one of the most vulnerable countries in Europe for immigration disputes due to its extensive coastal lines, the Presidency has made immigration another priority for the semester. The main immediate focus relates to the situation in Libya, which has created an increased influx of migrants into Italy. Actions in this area should focus mostly on the Mediterranean and in helping to improve the economic situation of the migrants’ countries of origin. In this way, the Italian Presidency hopes to complement its efforts to create a Common European Migration Policy by eliminating the driving reasons for the massive influx of immigrants into the region, namely economic and political turmoil. In addition, the Italian Presidency will try to enhance the Maritime Security Strategy, which was developed during the last Presidency, held by the Greek. Such efforts should help bring together both immigration concerns and associated security issues.

The Italian Presidency has not given indication of its strategy towards broader defence integration, apart from stating that it is in favour of increased European cooperation and actions. They made it explicit, however, that they will work in close cooperation with other institutions and committees within the EU structure to enhance the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). How this

will be done is unclear, as well as whether there is any perspective of progress in this area.

Ukraine and the Eastern Neighbourhood

Even though Italy is generally more concerned with the Mediterranean borders of the EU, the recent disputes involving Ukraine and Russia have already forced the Presidency to change its attention to the Eastern neighbourhood. Prior to July 1, the EU was taking a cautious approach to the events surrounding the Crimean dispute. This is understandable since Russia is a major economic partner of the EU and Ukraine is a priority partner. As a result, the main goal for the Italian Presidency had been to simply stabilise the situation through diplomatic means.

But after the tragedy involving Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, it became clear that the EU could not carry the same tone. The Italian Presidency decided to support stronger sanctions, which was made explicit after the Italians’ first Foreign Affairs Council Meeting on July 22. The meeting’s discussions revolved almost entirely on the Ukrainian issue and the official Council conclusions included imposing a stronger set of sanctions on individuals and entities, including from the Russian Federation, ‘who actively provide material or financial support to or are benefiting from the Russian decision makers responsible for the annexation of Crimea or the destabilisation of Eastern-Ukraine.’

Since Russia did not seem to care about the new sanctions and continued to support the escalation of conflict in the region, the Italian Presidency has already signalled the imposition of even stronger measures than originally announced at the Foreign Affairs Council Meeting. Even more pragmatic EU members, like Germany, support this position, which makes political sense for the Italian Presidency to push it forward. This seems to be the manner in which the Italian Presidency will deal with not only the Eastern neighbourhood, but with most issues: less technocratic, which provides predictability to actions, and more political manoeuvring, where goals and degrees of actions change rapidly with the winds of political interest.

Matteo Renzi as a Possible Wildcard

The Italian Presidency’s ability to perform depends heavily on its leader, Matteo Renzi. If he is able to successfully push forward his domestic reforms, he may just receive the strength to also make his mark at the EU level by gaining political capital, he does not yet have. There is still a lot of scepticism about his young and fearless style, but there is also much hope, which is something Italians have not experienced in a very long time. If this break with the past proves effective at the domestic level, Renzi may just be able to also move forward with his pro-Europe message. This is not an easy task for any Presidency, but he does talk and walk as he is the perfect man for the job.

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Moises Costa is pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Brown University.

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