Mr. Renzi Goes to Washington

Photo by Olivier Douliery/UPI
Photo by Olivier Douliery/UPI

A year ago, President Obama and Matteo Renzi were meeting in Rome. On Friday, April 17, Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister, was in Washington D.C. meeting President Obama in his first trip to the United States as the head of the Italian government. In the statement delivered by the White House’s Press Secretary on March 17 announcing the visit a series of issues were highlighted such as “support for Ukraine and continued U.S.-EU unity on pressuring Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to adhere to the Minsk agreements; the situation in Libya; and the need for the international community to continue efforts to counter ISIL and other extremists throughout the Middle East.” Even though the issues on the table are the same ones discussed last year in Rome, Matteo Renzi came to D.C. with a very different aura considering the results already obtained thanks to his policies.

Matteo Renzi – Changing Italy’s Future

Matteo Renzi came to D.C. at the right time considering the solidification of his power at home and in Europe. Renzi has worked on rebuilding domestic trust and in reestablishing Italy as a core and central country of the European Union. The years under Silvio Berlusconi contributed to the decline of Italy from what used to be an axiomatic EU Member State. So far it seems that Matteo Renzi is succeeding on both fronts. Domestically, he has established himself as the man of the situation by ending years of political instabilities. Politically, Forza Italia, right wing political party, has been kept under control after the disastrous years under Silvio Berlusconi. Economically and fiscally, yes the Italian overall debt remains massive representing 126% of the GDP. But on the bright side, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) project that the Italian economic outlook should be promising for 2015 with an expected growth of 0.6%. Even though the growth seems at homeopathic dosage, it would be the first time since mid-2011 that Italy would see some types of economic growth. Italy has been in recession for over three years now. All the cuts possible won’t be enough in order to lower the overall debt without growth; Italy must re-familiarized itself with economic growth.

At the European level, Italy is becoming relevant and an active member once again. The federicamogherinimatteorenzigovernmentyf0fx-kziyglmost obvious example was the appointment of Federica Mogherini at the helm of European foreign affairs. In less than a year, she has already demonstrated her commitment to her mission and has represented the EU where needed. Her short tenure at the EEAS has offered the EU and its Member States a new dynamism and presence on the regional and international platforms (read here a previous analysis on Mogherini’s 100 days). However, Matteo Renzi seems to be too close, for many Europeans and Americans, to Russia. The relationship between Italy and Russia is certainly long, but for many it seems that Renzi needs to be stronger in his opposition to Putin’s actions in Europe.

For both reasons, Mr. Renzi went to Washington with a certain aura and credibility. The economic engine is on and Italy matters once again in Europe.

Solving Libya and Ukraine

Ahead of this high level meeting at the White House, two issues are extremely important for the transatlantic community: Libya and Ukraine. From Rome, the crises in Libya and Ukraine are affecting directly the national security of Italy as well as the EU as a whole, while from Washington, President Obama would rather lead from behind with the help of core Atlantic partners, Italy for instance, than having to be directly involved on the ground. For one it is about security and survival, for the other it is about influence.

The crisis in Libya is serious for two reasons. Since the fall of the Qaddafi regime in 2011, led by an euro-atlantic coalition, the country has spiraled into a civil war. The civil war has created a power vacuum in the middle of North Africa offering the exit point for many Northern and Central Africans leaving their home countries because of political violence, war, dire economic conditions, terrorism with the hope to reach the European continent for a better life. The point of exit of Africa is Libya. Libya has become the transit country for most of illegal migration. In addition to unchecked migration, the civil war and lack of government have offered a new ground to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). ISIL has emerged in the country directly threatening neighboring countries, which includes Europe.

In the case of Ukraine, President Obama wants to assure the guarantee of unity of Europe

PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

in facing Russia. Crimea seems to belong to Russia and Ukraine should accept it, now the fights in Eastern Ukraine need to be solved. The Minsk agreement of February 2015 for a cease-fire was not enough, and the Euro-Atlantic community needs to be on the same page when addressing Russia. The economic sanctions implemented last summer by the EU are due to expire in late July 2015. So far there is no unity in the EU to extend them. A year ago, Italy was called on for trying to block the implementation of the economic sanctions against Russia. One reason is that Italy is the second largest trading partner with Russia after Germany. Russia has been strongly lobbying Italy in softening the sanctions against them. President Obama may want to avoid a situation wherein Italy limits the reach of the sanctions against Moscow.

In a matter of a year, Matteo Renzi seems to have delivered on many of his domestic promises and came with a certain aura to Washington. Matteo Renzi was hoping for some financial assistance in dealing with Libya (why not a NATO mission?) and in toughening his voice against Russia. Additionally, President Obama might have asked for some Italian support in order to try to finalize the massive T-TIP, which is lingering and creating strong discords in Europe. For what has been a very opaque meeting, due to the superficiality of Obama and Renzi’s comments (read here the joint press conference), Obama and Renzi wanted to solidify the ties and bring Italy back on the center stage.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).
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The Comeback of Nicolas Sarkozy – France’s Saviour?

Credit: afp.com/Lionel Bonaventure
Credit: afp.com/Lionel Bonaventure

France is once again at the center of European politics with the recent elections of Nicolas Sarkozy as the new President of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), the center-right party. Receiving 64.5% of the votes out of a 58.1% of voting participation of party members, the Sarkozysts believe that he is destined to retake the French Presidency in 2017 and save France from François Hollande. Unfortunately, experts and political advisors were expecting a result around 80% in order to assert his power and uncontested control over the party. Instead the relative good result of Bruno Le Maire, with 29,18%, has overshadowed Sarkozy’s comeback. So, why does the election of Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of the center-right French party matter for European and French politics?

Before his unsuccessful reelection in 2012, Sarkozy had said that if he lost “nobody will hear of me again.” During his absence from the French political scene, Nicolas Sarkozy was enjoying the life of a highly paid keynote speaker traveling around the world. In parallel, he had continued meeting unofficially with world heads of state and government in order to maintain his broad network. His silence ended in September 2014 when he announced his return to public life in France. Undeniably, Nicolas Sarkozy has only one thing in mind, save France from François Hollande by regaining the French Presidency in 2017. The road to the Presidency goes through the internal control of the UMP party. Since September, he has managed to paint a very dark picture of France by claiming that “it is the crisis in France that can tip Europe into disaster.” Since his election in May 2012, François Hollande, the second Socialist president of the Fifth Republic, has been facing serious challenges that had costed Sarkozy’s reelection in 2012, namely the economic slowdown of France, the eurozone crisis, high French unemployment, divided french society over its immigration policies and family values.

UMP, a troubled party?

After losing the Presidency in May 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy left the UMP in turmoil. For over two years, the party was facing financial, ideational, ideological and leadership problems. A feud between Jean-François Copé, a close Sarkozy ally, and François Fillon, former Prime Minister for Sarkozy, led the party into a dark period of division. Because of shady party elections, François Fillon called for a recall on the results. This led to a real threat of a split within the party from 2012 to 2014. Mr. Copé was the president of the UMP and was already envisioning himself as the next UMP candidate for the 2017 Presidential elections. But his presidential dream was shattered with the emergence of the Bygmalion affair, a funding scandal of the unsuccessful Sarkozy campaign. The solution for solving the turmoil within the party was the appointment of a triumvirat composed of three former Primer Ministers, François Fillon, Alain Juppé et Jean-Pierre Raffarin, that would lead the party from June 2014 to the elections in November.

Two big scandals have shaken the party, the Bygmalion affair and the hidden deficit of the party. The first crisis is the infamous Bygmalion affair, an event organizer for the Sarkozy’s presidential campaign. There were ‘anomalies,’ as underlined by Jerome Lavrilleux, a deputy director of Sarkozy’s presidential campaign. It appears that the UMP ordered fake invoices to Bygmalion in order to cover some of the costs of the Sarkozy campaign. This affair, directly or indirectly, implicates Nicolas Sarkozy claiming ignoring all of it. The second crisis emerged in early July 2014, the UMP announced that it was facing a massive debt of €74.5 millions caused by a loan for the party building (€27,5 millions), the spending for the 2014 Presidential election of Nicolas Sarkozy (€44 millions), and an additional loan (€2,5 millions). Both scandals are directly connected to Nicolas Sarkozy. Now as the President, Nicolas Sarkozy will have to address or simply try to cover these serious problems facing the credibility of the party and ultimately his image as a shady politician.

Additionally, Nicolas Sarkozy will have to work on recreating a clear narrative within the UMP. Today, the French right is as lost as the Republican Party in the US. Both parties

Drawing by Chappatte
Drawing by Chappatte

cannot identify their political and ideological baselines. In France, the party is divided between the center-right embodied by François Fillon and Alain Juppé, and a more extreme-right, promoted by Nicolas Sarkozy and François Copé. In the US, the GOP is spilt between a more reaganian republican party and an extreme neoliberal and libertarian branch. In both country, this ideological division is affecting the line of conduct of the parties and pushing them to the extreme right. In France, Sarkozy and Copé believe that by attracting the voters of the Front National, extreme-right, they will be able to get in power; while in the US, senators like Mitch McConnell (listen here an in-depth look at McConnell’s political life) are trying to attract the libertarians of the Tea Party affecting the historically more center and progressive line of conduct of the party. This radicalization, or even extremization, of the right has created a serious black-hole in shaping the political and economic debate in both countries. In the US, the GOP is more ideologically based than ever before – see its positions on climate change, heath care, women rights, minority rights, economic and fiscal policies -, while in France the UMP is moving towards an anti-everything party – anti-Europe, anti-immigration, anti-reformed family values, etc. -.

Sarkozy, the Solution?

The return of Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of the center-right wing party two and half year before the 2017 presidential elections is not a good news for France and Europe. Since he has made his comeback at the beginning of the summer, the political narratives within the

Credit : Stéphane de Sakutin / AFP
Credit : Stéphane de Sakutin / AFP

party and outside have been extremely venomous. Being elected President of the Party is one thing, now convincing French citizens to trust him again is another. Both Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande share one commonality: French citizens tend to dislike them equally, but for different reasons. Their public appearances create reticences among French citizens. Sarkozy has not been able to change his image of the ‘bling-bling’ president. Sarkozy and his advisers tend to forget one core dimension, François Hollande was elected in May 2012 because he represented the ‘anti-Sarkozy.’ Nicolas Sarkozy has to change his public image and convince the public opinion. As argued by Dominique Moïsi, a top French expert, “I don’t think Sarkozy will be France’s answer. He still hasn’t realized the extent to which the French rejected him in 2012, and the truth is, while they may be deeply disappointed in François Hollande, they have not changed their mind about him.”

Credit: Sebastien Bozon. AFP
Credit: Sebastien Bozon. AFP

The road to 2017 for Nicolas Sarkozy will be long for two reasons: his dark past as a politicians, and his lack of new ideas. First, as a politician, Nicolas Sarkozy’s political life is far from being pristine. Sarkozy is facing many judiciary inquiries for several cases such as allegations of undeclared cash from Libyan dictator Gaddafi, the L’Oréal affair with heiress Liliane Bettencourt, corruption allegations against the UMP, overspending for his 2014 campaign, and the Lagarde-Tapie scandal. Second, his political ideas do not seem to have changed since loosing power in 2014. On Europe, he is pushing for increasing control of movement of people within the Union. He has yet to advance new economic and social policies in order to explain what he would do differently than during his quinquennat, which was far from being convincing.

The Need for a Political Renouveau

At the European level, Nicolas Sarkozy’ success in his party is not a good news (read here a sum up of the comments by European press on Sarkozy’s comeback). Sarkozy embodies the lack of rejuvenation of the political scene and ultimately political, economic and social ideas. Just within the UMP, the return of Sarkozy at the presidency of the party and Alain Juppé, a center-right politician, as an eventual candidate for the 2017 Presidential elections demonstrate the lack of renouveau. Both men have demonstrated their leadership skills and political thoughts over their years/decades in government. They would eventually face one another during a primary election scheduled in 2016 to determine the UMP candidate for the 2017 presidential race. Neither candidate can foster dreams of a better future. They are just embodying the continuity of the political status-quo.

What else is to expect? So for an EU in search of a renouveau and new wind (remember Pope Francis’ speech before the European Parliament comparing the EU to “a ‘grandmother,’ no longer fertile and vibrant”), it cannot afford of having the same political leaders perpetually coming back and not leaving the place to a younger group. Such domestic stagnation illustrates one of the reasons behind the lack of attractiveness and lethargy of Europe. Despite its serious economic and social crises, Italy has been able to turn the Berlusconi page and elect a new brand of Italian politicians – for better or worst -. Matteo Renzi, aside from any political judgments, embodies a new political scene. The new High Representative for EU foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, former Foreign Minister of the Renzi’s government, belongs to this new scene. French citizens ought to address this problems of perpetual elite reproduction and finally elect newer and younger politicians, on either sides of the political spectrum. Stefan Ulrich of the German newspaper the Süddeutsche Zeitung claims that “France advanced towards the past.” With Sarkozy returning at the helm at the French right, the presidential race is officially on. Neither France nor the EU can afford a three year presidential race. They both need new ideas, new visions, new leaders.

(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).