Italy: New beginning signals further attacks

Renzi’s administration intends to further erode workers’ rights, writes Toby Abse

Italy’s new cabinet clearly bears the imprint of Matteo Renzi, the newly installed 39-year-old prime minister - even if like any recent Italian prime minister (or any premier heading a coalition government) he has had to accept some names that he might not have chosen if he and his Partito Democratico (PD) had actually won a general election with a large majority.

In reality, since he achieved the premiership by a treacherous intrigue against his predecessor and fellow member of the PD, Enrico Letta, he has had to make some concessions to both president Giorgio Napolitano and Angelino Alfano, the leader of the Nuovo Centrodestra (NCD - New Centre Right), his principal coalition partner. Nonetheless, the overall balance of the cabinet shows Renzi’s determination to get his own way as far as he can. Renzi is totally obsessed with image, and the image he has sought to convey is that of a ‘new beginning’. Therefore, it is not surprising that the average age of the 16 members of the cabinet - deliberately smaller and more streamlined than those of any of his recent predecessors - is 47, noticeably lower than the average of 53 in the Letta cabinet, which itself was relatively young by Italian standards. Three members of the Renzi cabinet are still in their 30s and only two are in their 60s.

However, there are certain limits to this very Blairite notion of a new beginning. After long, and at times rather fraught, negotiations, Renzi has had to accept that the three ministers from the NCD still in place at the end of the Letta government1 should retain their ministries (Angelino Alfano as the minister of the interior, a crucial post in the repressive apparatus of the state2; Maurizio Lupi at infrastructure and transport; and Beatrice Lorenzin at health), even if Alfano has lost the rank of deputy prime minister that he held in the Letta administration. No other minor party has more than one minister3- Scelta Civica has Stefania Giannini, its party leader, at education, while the new environment minister is Gian Luca Galletti of the Unione di Centro (UdC) - and the Popolari per l’Italia has been deprived of its one minister, Mario Mauro, who held the defence portfolio under Letta.4 The PD has eight of the 16 cabinet posts, with the remaining three going to what the Italians call tecnici - allegedly non-political or technocratic figures.

Yes women

Even more noticeable than its relative youth is the fact that this is the first cabinet in Italian history with gender parity - eight of the 16 ministers are women - bringing it closer to a Scandinavian pattern than a southern European one. Nobody of any political persuasion is alleging any similarity with Silvio Berlusconi’s penchant for advancing the career of young women in politics on the basis of their appearance rather than their ability (most notoriously in the case of Mara Carfagna, the former topless model appointed as minister of equal opportunities). The criteria adopted for these female promotions have undoubtedly been similar to those used in choosing the male ministers - in other words, Renzi’s eight women ministers do not seem particularly forceful characters. The most dynamic and loquacious woman in the previous cabinet - the 65-year-old former European commissioner, Emma Bonino, active in the Radical Party for four decades - has been ousted as foreign minister. This decision is generally believed to have been the central issue in the clearly rather heated one-and-a-half-hour conversation Renzi had with Napolitano before the ministerial list was finalised - a conversation which left the prime minister hoarse, after shouting at the elderly president.

Whilst it may be slightly unfair to Renzi’s women appointees to compare them to ‘Blair’s babes’, keeping Bonino in post would have been a more serious indication that he was actually willing to take advice from a female politician in an area of policy - foreign affairs - about which the former Florentine mayor is notoriously ignorant.5 Bonino’s female successor, the 40-year-old PD member, Federica Mogherini, did work in the foreign department of the Democatici di Sinistra (the ex-‘official communist’ predecessor party of the PD), was in charge of the Italian delegation to the Nato parliamentary assembly and has, for the last month or so since Renzi’s election as PD secretary, been responsible for European affairs in the PD’s national secretariat. However, she is no more known to her European counterparts than Renzi himself is.

Renzi’s sacking of Cécile Kyenge, the first black minister in Italian history, and the abolition of her ministry of integration are arguably even more significant than his decision to dump Bonino. Kyenge has been subject to a continuous and well orchestrated hate campaign by the Lega Nord and other racist elements on Italy’s far right. They have insulted her on the internet, in numerous public speeches and even face to face, calling upon her to go home to the Congo or comparing her with African prostitutes on Italian roads. Therefore, despite Renzi’s vague talk before his accession to the premiership of repealing the particularly repressive immigration legislation generally known as the Bossi-Fini law, it looks as if this self-proclaimed paladin of modernity has in fact yielded to the reactionary populism of the Lega Nord. No doubt he imagines, in all probability wrongly, that this abject capitulation will lessen the Lega’s chances of revival in the European election this May, for which it has formed a pan-European alliance with Marine Le Pen’s Front National, the Austrian Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, the Flemish far right and other similar forces, centring on the issue of immigration as an alleged threat to western civilisation.

It is worth noting that if Napolitano lost the argument over the foreign ministry, it was Renzi who had reluctantly to accept the president’s choice in two other ministries - economics and justice. The economics minister, Pier Carlo Padoan, is at 64 the oldest member of the cabinet and was previously an executive director of the International Monetary Fund in Washington and chief economist of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

Andrea Orlando, the new justice minister, had the environment portfolio under Letta. Now aged 45, he has had a very long career as an apparatchik in the Partito Comunista Italiano and its successor organisations, which commenced when he took on the post of provincial secretary of the Young Communists of La Spezia straight from school at the age of 20. Moreover, he belongs to the Young Turks (Giovani Turchi), which the Corriere della Sera defines as a “post-Dalemian” current in the PD. In short, as somebody associated with both Letta and D’Alema, as well as with the apparatus of every single post-communist party (all very major disqualifications in Renzi’s eyes), Orlando is very obviously the choice of Napolitano, not Renzi.

Renzi’s own choice, Nicola Gratteri, a magistrate from Reggio Calabria, well known as a fearless scourge of the Ndrangheta (Calabrian Mafia) - was totally unacceptable to Napolitano, who believes that it is not the place of magistrates to pursue over-zealous inquiries into possible links between politicians and organised crime. Orlando’s most famous contribution to debates on judicial reform was an article in the Berlusconian daily Il Foglio, which gained a very favourable response on the centre-right, but excited much ire from Napolitano’s bête noire, Il Fatto Quotidiano, a newspaper whose journalists the president sees as his persecutors.6

Another two key economic ministries also went to so-called tecnici - Federica Guidi, 44, got economic development and Giuliano Poletti, 62, the ministry of labour. Guidi comes from a family of prominent industrialists: her father was for 10 years the vice-president of Confindustria, the employers’ federation roughly equivalent to the CBI. Berlusconi was very quick to praise her appointment; unsurprisingly she and her father had had dinner with the aged criminal at his palatial Lombard villa at Arcore the previous Monday. This appointment has given rise to some controversy in some quarters, since her family firm, Ducati Energia, has now outsourced most of its business, and particularly the manufacturing side, to Croatia, Romania, India and Argentina, which sits badly with responsibility for ‘economic development’ within Italy itself. Perhaps even more interestingly, the firm is regularly in the running for contracts for government business - as Stefano Fassina, the Keynesian from the PD’s left wing, whom Renzi forced out of Letta’s government, has rightly said, “The potential conflict of interest is completely evident. But beyond that what worries me is the minister’s vision of industrial policy, her idea of relaunching nuclear energy, her opposition to the role of the state in the economy. I think there should be need of a minister of development with a very different orientation.”7

Renzi intends to modify the labour law, further eroding even what remains of article 18 of the workers’ statute of 1970 through what he calls his ‘Jobs Act’ (his admiration for Tony Blair is accompanied by a copious use of a bizarre form of pidgin English, which none of his obsequious acolytes have ever dared to correct, but which will doubtless be the source of merriment at future international summits). Given this, his choice of labour minister is significant. Giuliano Poletti was PCI secretary in his native Imola from 1982 to 1989, and from 2002 he has been the president of the Legacoop, which groups together 15,000 cooperative enterprises. In practice Poletti sees things from an entrepreneurial rather than a working class viewpoint, but his apparent long-term identification with the labour movement makes him an ideal front man to impose neoliberal counter-reforms on the trade unions.

Here perhaps Renzi has learnt a little tact - grasping that the combative approach of Mario Monti’s labour minister, Elsa Fornero, aroused such opposition from the unions that it slowed down the piecemeal destruction of workers’ rights - he has avoided making a provocative choice like Pietro Ichino, the former PD rightwinger whose extreme neoliberal position on labour law led him to defect to Scelta Civica .


1. The NCD agriculture minister had already been forced to resign as a result of corruption allega­tions linked to a criminal inquiry into some of her associates.

2. Some have alleged that Alfano played a key role in the forcible and illegal deportation of the wife and child of a leading Kazakh dissident from Italy last summer; he claimed that leading police officials spontaneously carried out orders from the Kazakh embassy without his knowledge. The PD’s willingness to back up Alfano’s implausible version in a parliamentary vote was seen by many as the low point of the grand coalition.

3. The Italian press has claimed that unlike Alfano and the NCD, such parties had to negotiate with Renzi through intermediaries, and not face to face - with the PD prime minister making ‘take it or leave it’ offers through trusted courtiers after the minor parties had put forward their wish lists.

4. Mauro regards this as a humiliation for his political group as well as a personal insult and has made it very clear that, although the Popolari will give Renzi a vote of confidence, they are only doing so in the spirit of the speech that president Giorgio Napolitano made at the very beginning of his second term - he called upon all Italians to display a spirit of national unity in the face of the severe crisis the country was facing. Although the Italian establishment had quite a high regard for Mauro as minister of defence, one might suggest that his continual change of parties - he had been a PdL supporter of Berlusconi until he jumped ship to support Monti’s Scelta Civica, so his desertion of Scelta Civica for the Popolari was his second defection in as many years - may not have strengthened his case in negotiating with Renzi, who preferred to reward those who he felt he could rely upon, such as the new Scelta Civica leader given the education portfolio.

5. It might be added that sacking Enzo Moavero, the European affairs minister in the Letta cabinet, and actually abolishing the European affairs ministry itself seems another rather injudicious de­cision on the part of somebody with such minimal knowledge in this crucial area for Italy - which, while it may have narrowly escaped the fate of Greece, Ireland or Cyprus, has in practice been under close observation by the European Central Bank and the European Commission since the summer of 2011.

6. Their most famous polemicist, investigative journalist Marco Travaglio, has written a very long and hostile study of Napolitano’s presidency.

7. La Repubblica February 23.