This book sets out to explain the foreign policy of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (February 2014 to December 2016). It offers a unique analytical framework to make sense of Renzi’s foreign policy: the domestically-focused outsider. It argues that to untangle Renzi’s foreign policy one must first understand that his clear priority was enacting domestic economic and political reforms. Domestic focus means that Renzi made foreign policy decisions with a sensitivity to public opinion and party unity. The book also argues that Renzi’s status as an outsider in Italian politics—having previously served only as the mayor of Florence—provides critical insight into his foreign policy.
Renzi was prone to skepticism of the establishment and dramatic, symbolic gestures rather than patient coalition building. The book applies this framework to the five most important foreign policy issues Renzi’s government faced: migration, finance and the EU, Russia, ISIL, and Libya. The book’s analysis of the cases benefits from over twenty elite interviews, including those with senior members of Renzi’s government.
When Matteo Renzi was sworn in as Italian Prime Minister in February 2014 it was reasonable for analysts and observers to expect continuity in Italian foreign policy. True, Renzi was a one-term mayor of Florence with no national or international political or policy experience. One might have expected, however, that Renzi would choose seasoned experts for the Foreign and Defense ministries and surround himself with equally experienced advisers. Those expectations would have been completely wrong. In process and style Renzi has dominated Italian foreign policy since taking office. In policy his government has been responsible for a series of unpredicted discontinuities relative to previous governments. First, while it has enacted European Union (EU) sanctions against Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, it has also been the leading voice criticizing sanctions and has been the only EU member to force a formal debate on sanctions. The Renzi government’s policy is surprising because the United States and leading EU members like Britain and Germany support sanctions. Second, the Renzi government has repeatedly refused American requests that Italian aircraft engage in airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. Despite the relevant Italian military contribution in Iraq, this “choice of non belligerence” (Parsi 2016, 132) is puzzling because previous Italian governments of the center right and center left in the post-Cold War period have participated consistently in similar military operations (from Kosovo to Libya) and because the alliance with the US has traditionally been a pillar of Italia foreign policy. Finally, the Renzi government has been extremely assertive in challenging the “German-led EU” consensus in favor of financial austerity, expressing “harsh criticism” (Carbone 2015, 90) toward the European Commission and trying to alter also the “narrative of the EU.” Renzi has openly refused to accept the “diktat from the euro-bureaucrats.” Moreover, since the beginning of the “refugee crisis”, Italy had constantly demanded a “fair” burden-sharing mechanism within the EU (Panebianco 2016a), aiming to shape the European agenda on migration (e.g., through the so-called “Migration Compact”). This is striking because in the past Italy has frequently favored quiet compromise in Brussels instead of open and aggressive pursuit of its interests (Perissich 2016). In addition, the EU represented the external constraint that helped Italian leader to imposed problematic reforms (Panebianco 1977; Fabbrini and Piattoni 2008; Longo and Isernia 2017). As stated in his autobiography, Renzi affirmed that while for years national elite has considered the EU “as a tool to implement reform” (2017, 163) domestically, Italy should now “reverse such relationship” (2017, 159), starting to pose requests to Brussels. How can we explain Italian foreign policy under Matteo Renzi, including these and other policy discontinuities?
Notwithstanding a significant interest in Renzi’s domestic politics, scarce research has been conducted on his foreign policy. In order to explain Italian foreign policy during Matteo Renzi’s premiership this book will focus on five areas that have been the highest profile ones during this period: Russia/Ukraine, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, instability in Libya, migration, and the EU financial crisis. We have developed a novel analytical framework that emphasizes that Renzi is a domestically-focused outsider. As we will outline later, the most critical point is that Renzi has been focused on domestic reforms and electoral success.
As such, his desire to achieve reforms and win elections drives his foreign policy choices. Moreover, Renzi is an outsider to national-level Italian politics. Renzi’s role as an outsider combined with his domestic focus explains his image as a dynamic scrapper of the status quo and his personalization and centralization of power in the office of the Prime Minister. He markets himself as an outsider to the Italian public and he does not trust the traditional foreign policy elite to make policy that serves the best interests of his reform agenda or electoral prospects.