ROME — Matteo Renzi has a dream: An Italian centrist will take over one of the EU’s most powerful jobs as president of the European Council.
Following an announcement that the incumbent, Charles Michel, plans to run in the European Parliament elections in June, an urgent search is now underway to identify his replacement.
In a video interview with POLITICO, Renzi, the former Italian prime minister, said Michel’s successor chairing EU leaders’ summits should be a centrist. They should also have served their country — preferably Italy — as prime minister, he added.
The famously self-assured Florentine sounded like he was applying for the job himself. But after a pause for dramatic effect, he laughed and revealed the candidate he had in mind: Mario Draghi.
Draghi is a former president of the European Central Bank, famously credited with having saved the euro. He is already back in the thick of EU politics working on an official Brussels plan to make the bloc more competitive. The 76-year-old served as leader of a broad-based Italian coalition until it broke apart in 2022 and his name often comes up when leadership roles in international affairs fall vacant.
Renzi likes to take the credit for ushering Draghi to power in Italy in 2021, by bringing down Giuseppe Conte’s government in a series of Machiavellian plot twists. Now he wants to do the same for Europe.
“I was happy to have brought Draghi to lead Italy, going against Conte, even though as a result I lost support and popularity. Today, I would be happy if Draghi were head of the EU Council,” he said.
The European Council president occupies a key position in EU politics. They chair summit meetings of all 27 EU countries’ leaders and represent the bloc internationally at the most senior level on foreign policy and security issues. It is not clear how or when Michel’s replacement will be chosen.
A furious round of horse-trading between leading political blocs will likely follow the EU Parliament elections coming up in June, after which top jobs including the presidencies of the European Commission and the Council will be decided. It is possible that Michel’s post will be filled sooner than that.
Haggling for power
As the right and the left haggle over who should get which job, the liberals could well emerge with stewardship of the EU Council. It “makes sense”, Renzi enthused, indulging his habit of peppering his Italian with English buzzwords.
Italy’s current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni would not be opposed to a strong Italian such as Draghi in a key European role, he argued. “It’s absolutely in her interests to have Draghi. Before her election, she was presented as a dangerous neo-fascist, so there were very low expectations [in Europe] for the first few months. But she is struggling to get results.”
At a press conference earlier this month Meloni said while her party was in opposition to his government, she did not oppose Draghi’s foreign policy. An associate of Draghi’s told POLITICO that he is not interested in any of the top EU jobs. While he is in regular contact with Draghi, Renzi later said he had not discussed the Council presidency idea with him.
Renzi said he could alternatively support other centrist, former prime minister “friends” such as the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte and Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel. What about Renzi himself? “With all the affection I have for Matteo Renzi, Mario Draghi is the best person for the job,” he replied.
Renzi may be able to cheerlead for Draghi from Brussels, as he is running for the European Parliament. Arguably he knows a thing or two about European elections, having previously led the Democratic Party to more than 40 percent of the Italian vote, more than any other party in Europe.
“We won’t get 40 percent this year,” he admitted. His party, Italia Viva, is currently polling around 3 percent, below the 4 percent entry threshold set by Italy.
“I don’t have a numerical objective, But if I take 1,000, or 10 million votes, I’ve already been prime minister. I am at peace, I’m very liberated. My objective is to see if there are millions of Italians ready to vote for serious policies, rather than for those [politicians] I call influencers, such as Meloni and [opposition leader Elly] Schlein.”
Outlining his platform for the first time, Renzi said he wants to reform the EU with a directly elected president of the European Commission and end the power of individual member countries to veto key decisions.
He wants an EU army and common defense investment, a stronger diplomatic role for Europe in the world, and thinks artificial intelligence should be embraced. Like Draghi, Renzi wants a fully integrated Europe.
“Europe is at a crossroads,” he said. Either it becomes “a protagonist … or it will become a simple spectator in the ping-pong match between China and the U.S.”
Renzi, the former mayor of Florence, often compared to Tony Blair and nicknamed “the Bulldozer,” came to power as Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister in 2014, with a program of reforms.
But he spectacularly miscalculated by staking his premiership on a referendum. When Italians resoundingly rejected his proposal for sweeping constitutional reforms in 2016 he subsequently resigned as prime minister. “I always say that all referendums from 2016, mine and Brexit, should be annulled,” he joked.
He split from the Democratic Party to form Italia Viva, and then formed a centrist grouping, the Third Pole in 2022, splitting after lackluster results and infighting.
Since leaving government, he has often been accused of traveling the world providing “consultancies” in countries including Saudi Arabia. Given the Qatargate corruption scandal, and the EU’s new lobbying and transparency rules, he might have to review some of his sidelines.
While he doesn’t have a consultancy in Saudi Arabia, he sits on advisory boards all over the world, he said. But he will “of course” abide by the rules.
Gifted with a brash confidence that seems to rub some people up the wrong way, Renzi has ranked among Italy’s least popular leaders since leaving office.
Despite the turbulence, he claims to hold no grudges. “Italian political life is full of ups and downs,” he said. “We are the country of Machiavelli.”