Ideas Abu Dhabi: Europe needs a 'soul', says Matteo Renzi

Former Italian PM claims education is the correct response to populists

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 27, 2019.  --- IDEAS Abu Dhabi Forum.
-- Sen. Matteo Renzi, Former Prime Minister of Italy with Mina Al-Oraibi,   Editor in Chief of The National.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Dan Sanderson
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Modern Europe needs to find its “soul” and stop obsessing over bureaucracy, a former Italian Prime Minister who fell victim to a populist surge has said.

Matteo Renzi called on Brussels to focus on improving people’s lives rather than drawing up endless new diktats and fiscal targets.

In an at times light-hearted appearance at Ideas Abu Dhabi, he joked he had recently told Tony Blair, the former UK Prime Minister, that the UK’s chaotic exit from the EU had caused him to reassess his view of British politicians as competent.

He also claimed that while China was putting billions into artificial intelligence, Europe was investing in “natural stupidity”.

“Europe lost the last 10 years to discussing red tape and bureaucracy, stupid rules, and at the same time the world changed deeply,” he said.

“There are 50 or 60 people who come from Eritrea and Libya, arrive in Italy, and politicians say ‘there is an invasion.’

“This is 50 people, who escaped war, who risked life, who had a lot of problems.

“Exactly at the same hour that our populist politician is writing on Instagram or Facebook ‘we have an invasion’ because there are 60 people on the boat, in the same hour Xi Jinping, the president of China, invited 52 states of Africa and signed a cheque for $60 billion to create a strategy.

“This is a symbol and example – our problem today is the lack of vision for Europe.”

The politician, who remains an Italian Senator, told how his ancestors had gone to France to fight a war while his son would visit the country as part of the Erasmus exchange programme, an EU-run scheme designed to help students study abroad.

He said that fact was “beautiful” but insisted Europe needed to do more in defining a role for itself.

“We need a soul for the Europe of today and to build that we need to stop the stupid discussion of today – we continue to speak about the rules, deficit, budget and now, Brexit,” he said.

Referring to his conversation with Mr Blair this month, the 44-year-old added: “I grew up with British politicians as a model. Winston Churchill and, for me also, Tony Blair and the third way.

“Wonderful. So I grew up with the idea British politicians are the best around the world.

“Then I saw Brexit and I think it’s a symbol of Italian organisation, unbelievable.

“Jokes apart, this is a problem. There will be a future totally different – what is the role of Europe in that?

“I think invest in ideas, in the country. The real challenge for security is not the boat with 50 or 60 people in the Mediterranean, but in the cities we have a great danger for our community - if we don’t invest with education. Open theatres, open schools, open music halls, this is the role of Europe.”

Mr Renzi’s political career has suffered at the hands of populists. Seen as a centrist, he was forced to resign as Prime Minister after he lost a referendum in 2016 over constitutional reforms, which brought about an anti-establishment backlash.

Last year, he gave up leadership of Italy’s Democratic Party after a crushing defeat to the Five Star Movement, a populist anti-immigration party, which won the elections.

He claimed that promoting education was the correct response to the rising tide of populism, as well as preparing citizens for a changing world.

“Populism is a message against the establishment but also a message against the future,” he said.

“If we believe in an alternative we have to create people who study, who understand the problem. For that reason, I think education is the dam against populism, not reform, not politics.”