It is a good slap in the face, stricken knowingly and coldly. On Wednesday, the E.U. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande will meet in Berlin for an “informal summit.” Italian President Matteo Renzi is not invited.
In this case, form matters much more than substance. It is unlikely relevant decisions will be made at the impromptu summit, convened under the pretext of the attendance of the three leaders at the annual dinner organized by European industrialists in the German capital. The important thing is the signal sent by leaving Italy behind, and thus sanctioning the exclusion from that European Directorate that had apparently been born in Ventotene.
Merkel played it down: “There is no discriminatory intent. This is not a break. Bilateral or trilateral meetings, like the ones held in Maranello and Ventotene, will be repeated.” There’s no justification, however, for the missing invitation to Berlin. It is perfectly self-explanatory, even though the leader accompanies the stick with the carrot. Renzi is now in detention; when he falls back in line, the smiles will return. And the invitations. The Washington Post reported that, at this rate, the E.U. risks losing its unity.
Renzi made hard-nosed replies and bellicose statements online and on news services. On Facebook, he announced that he had “launched an appeal to the rest of the country,” for all mayors to intervene on schools: “The Europe we want and which we have helped to build may not be the obstacle to the safety of our children. The stability of the schools come first, then the bureaucracies.” Speaking out loud during a visit to Ducati in Bologna, he railed against austerity, claiming it is the “wrong mechanism,” and “useless policies that actually hurt.” And he praised Obama: “Thanks to him, the U.S. has invested in growth and overcome the crisis.”
The give and take comes after a week that saw the state of relations between the E.U. and Italy plunging. The clock is ticking. Next Tuesday, the government will launch the additional note to DEF that, in a completely different situation, and much worse than expected at the time it was launched the last spring, it will in fact be a new DEF. So, the government knocks hard at the European door, but this time it is barred. Day by day, the statements by Juncker and the president of the Bundesbank have become more hostile. If not yet an explicit “No,” at least it is a necessary prologue: Italy has already been awarded flexibility in the past.
But the government needs at least €10 billion as oxygen. Otherwise it will be impossible to implement the necessary actions, and even more so the propaganda ahead of the referendum. It will also be inevitable, according to the safeguard clause, to increase the VAT in January. It is hard to imagine a darker scenario for Renzi, who has been promising tax cuts for months.
After the cross-fire last week and after the rudeness of not inviting him Friday, the game seems closed. Probably not. The missing invitation, just like the roaring statements by Renzi, are the steps of an ongoing negotiation, and the dramatic gestures and shouted words reveal that the talks are continuing. The E.U. has no intention of granting the full amount requested by the Italian government, but neither does it want to send it sprawling. Almost certainly, something will be released at the end.
However, it will not be everything, it will not be given away blindly. Renzi will be asked to stop the constant criticism that European leaders no longer tolerate. To understand at what point relations truly break down, beyond the mutual but not really substantial coldness, we’ll have to wait until next week to see.
In the difficult negotiations, Renzi cannot count on “national solidarity” that would be helpful. But things have now gone too far, and this time the leader of Forza Italia Brunetta, usually ready to rant against the E.U., is taking sides with the hawks in Berlin and Brussels: “Renzi, stop talking and make a law that respects the European rules.” Quite a strong comment from him.