Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Enrico Letta: Europe Needs a New Rationale

Adelina Marini, August 9, 2013

How should the EU continue its development in the future is an issue which has been discussed for several months now, confirming the perception that the Union is at crossroads. The debate already joined together or individually some of the founding members of the EU - Germany, France, The Netherlands - but contribution also has the UK. Recently, they were joined by Italy's Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who is new both for the European and the Italian politics. The young, especially for the Italian traditions, premier (46) has emerged as a compromise (not as much consensual) figure in the epicentre of a large scale, even for the perceptions in Italy, political crisis. The parliamentary elections ended inconclusively for all the traditional parties. On the political horizon new players appeared, like the anti status-quoist Beppe Grillo and the technocrat Mario Monti.

The very Italian system was threatening to swallow and destruct itself. That is why, it is no surprise that one of Enrico Letta's first tasks was to embark on an ambitious constitutional reform the purpose of which is to prevent the political institutions to block each other in the future. From the very beginning the Italians were sceptic that the government of Letta will survive long. The one hundred days of his rule are nearing and that scepticism remains. Except the cautious reforms in some areas, accompanied by bolder actions here and there, Mr Letta found time to outline his vision of Europe in an article for the Project Syndicate.

Let's be pragmatic!

Even a vague read of his text shows unequivocally that Letta continues Monti's line - active and balancing role at the EU level. The former commissioner Mario Monti was accepted very well at the European political stage, he was getting along very well with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and found common grounds with the French president. Monti managed to maintain a solid connection with British Prime Minster David Cameron who, before announcing his ultimatum, was in hard European isolation. It is still early to say whether Enrico Letta will succeed to entirely fit in Il Professore's shoes, but in any event Europe can be safe that there is a predictable and forward-looking leader in Italy.

Letta, centre left, believes that Europe should change radically. First and foremost, the approach should be changed from specific policies to politics that will put economic growth on top of the agenda. EU does not need an austerity-vs-growth debate, but pragmatism. According to him, a good example of such pragmatism was the June EU summit which had as point one on its agenda the battle with the unprecedented unemployment, especially among the young people. And for that issue to be first on the agenda special merit has Enrico Letta himself.

In the spirit of Monti's European balance (an economist), Letta (a political scientist) believes that fiscal consolidation and structural reforms must continue, but the EU will be much better in achieving its goals if it supports national actions instead of impeding them. A good example for such assistance is a recent decision by the Commission to allow member states to loose the belts a bit. In that position of his he is much closer to France and the southern states than to Germany, but, again in Monti's europolitics, he is closest to Barroso's Commission. Without commenting on the proposals Barroso was flooding the European leaders within the past year, Letta supports one of the ideas of the former prime minister of Portugal - those who implement tough structural reforms within a certain period of time to get financial incentives.

But for now, he sees this rather as a conversation than as something that should immediately be done. Such a conversation, he believes, "could" lead to some form of fiscal coordination. "Though it is premature to enter into such discussions now, the issue should not be taken off the table", Letta specifies. His caution is due to the fact that according to him the functioning of the EU, especially during a crisis, is rather a part of the problem than of the solution. "For many people, EU decision-making is opaque, inefficient, and removed from democratic control". Moreover, the Union is already too exhausted and fewer are those who remember what is behind the more than 50 years of integration. That is why a new rationale is needed that would help Europe achieve its goals in a changing global environment. For a new goal was calling euinside too.

Letta the Temporary

It is difficult at this stage to say for sure what exactly Letta's caution is based upon. Is this his own personal vision about Europe's future or is it driven rather by the fact that no one expects him and his government to complete their term? He is not a leader of the political party he comes from, although he has certain political experience. The fact that he heads the cabinet but not the party, however, weakens both him and the leader of the Democratic Party Pier Luigi Bersani. But this is the smaller problem. The bigger, not only for him but for Italy and even for Europe at large for more than 20 years is called Berlusconi.

The confirmation of the 4 years prison sentence of the former Italian prime minister seriously shook Letta's government, which is supported by Berlusconi's People of Freedom party. In part due to the Italian political culture and most of all due to the well known temper of Il Cavaliere, that sentence was threatening with a new political crisis. Several days after the sentence, however, Berlusconi confirmed his support for Enrico Letta's cabinet. But it is difficult to trust Berlusconi and that is why the question how long will the cabinet survive is not off Italy's agenda.

At this stage, it seems that Berlusconi could leave the political stage, but not his influence. This is a factor that will continue to fuel doubts in the Italian political stability. And the economic stability too, as a matter of fact, given that Italy although it succeeded to remain on the surface, its economy is completely deadlocked. A fact that was reflected in the decision of the credit rating agency Standard & Poor's to downgrade Italy in July and threatened that next time it will downgrade it ti junk. The European Commission, too, warned Italy on a number of occasions that it has to implement bold reforms of the labour market, to increase competitiveness and to improve tax collection.

It is evident that Letta agrees with everything that his country has to do, but has his hands tied. May be this is why his first task is a political reform. If he succeeds, as this is not the first attempt for such a reform, then it could be much easier for him and for any government after him to pass the so necessary for the country for decades structural reforms which otherwise always sink in political battles. In fact, when I think of it, Italian politics very much resembles the European politics - too big compromises and too small steps and here and there a Berlusconi. Ergo, both Italy and the EU are at crossroads. At least, Italy does not suffer from growing euroscepticism, although this can quickly change. According to Letta, the turning point are the European elections next year when the eurosceptics could win more and thus block the EU. Letta knows what that means.