With the uncertainty surrounding Greece’s future in the eurozone and Sunday’s emergency summit, countries in the EU’s southern periphery are concerned about what impact the latest developments could have on them. Of these, Italy is key. It is the third largest economy after France and Germany in the eurozone and while it has not needed a bailout, Italy has undergone tough austerity measures and painful reforms under its new, young prime minister, Matteo Renzi. Beyond this, Italy has been on at the forefront of the migrant crisis, with thousands of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean, and often arriving in Italy. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi spoke to Al Jazeera’s Barbara Serra in Rome on Wednesday July 8 about Greece, the migrant crisis and his relationship with the Egyptian president.
Matteo Renzi: I think we must definitely and finally solve the problem of Greece. After six months of polemics, discussions, compromise, this is the moment of solution. I think there is the possibility to conclude an agreement. It’s obvious for everyone the necessity for Greece to realise structural reforms, it’s absolutely necessary to invest in the future and the organisation of the Greek economy. At the same time I think we must conclude and help support Greece for the next months and years. But the problem for me in this moment is not simply focused on Greece. The real problem is Europe’s image for the future. So now we conclude the Greece emergency, but then we must absolutely change the perception of Europe and above all the regeneration of Europe.
Do you think Greece should get some debt relief?
I think in this moment this is not on the table for a lot of reasons. First of all because a majority of countries are against this…
But are you against or are you for?
For me the problem is not the Greek debt. The problem is the organisation of the Greek economy. Greece is a great country. Not for the number of people, but for the history, for the quality of democracy, quality of experience in Greece. I cannot envisage a Europe without Greece, it would be a Europe without very important values and also lifestyle. But also I think we have forced and pushed the Greek government in the current direction because we cannot say it’s one rule for the Greeks and another for the Italians, French, Spanish.
The most important challenge today is to come back to trust. The decision by Tsipras to call a referendum created a lot of problems for the older governments. Some colleagues said: ‘So everyone could call a referendum and say I don’t want to pay my debt’. I think we can avoid that question by investing in the Greek economy and the Greek future.
You said that Europe should be about growth and not austerity. Does that mean that the policies of austerity have failed?
The real challenge for Greece in this moment is to give a message of structural change in the country. But there is a second problem. That problem is Europe. Fifteen years ago Europe decided, in Lisboa, on a new strategy for the future. And our political fathers decided, ‘Europe in the next 20 years will be the most vibrant, the most dynamic, the most innovative part of the world’. Is this true after 15 years? No. Europe has lost a lot of opportunities. That is because the focus of Brussels, of European institutions, was focused on the red tape of bureaucracy and not on the future of young people. This is the problem of my country.
Is part of that problem perhaps that Europe almost seems divided in two; northern Europeans have one way of doing things and sometimes accuse the southern Europeans of not playing by the same rules. Do you feel that as a southern European leader?
Europe is divided in many parts, not only in two parts. But I do know, there is a difference between North and South. And let me be frank. There is also a different division between the first Europe that was created 58 years ago in Rome by the six country founders, and the new Europe, east Europe. Now Europe is 28 countries. And the process of change in Europe was very speedy, perhaps too much.
So has Europe and the eurozone become too big?
Eurozone is composed by 19 countries, and it’s impossible to go back. So maybe it’s a paradox, but we must go ahead with more velocity and strong determination. In that process is my challenge as one of the young leaders, to create a vision for the future.
Part of the future will be decided on Sunday at the emergency European summit. What side will you be on if the question is ‘Should Greece stay in the eurozone’?
It’s not easy to know the future. But I think there are possibilities that Greece stays in the eurozone with the current agreements. Now the decision remains with the Greek government. If the Greek government will choose an idea of economic proposals good for everyone as much as this is possible, then I think that next Monday Greece will still be in the eurozone and the emergency for Greece will be solved. But I repeat we must absolutely decide to invest a lot of energy and resources in the problem of Europe.
We’re seeing limited possibility of economic contagion, but perhaps the problem now is one of political contagion. You’ve had calls from some opposition parties, like the Northern League and the 5 Star movement to have a referendum in Italy like in Greece. I know that there are constitutional reasons why that couldn’t happen now, but you are known as the man who changes things. So would the will ever be there on your part to give Italians a say? To have a referendum in Italy over membership of the euro?
First of all there is no contagion for Italy for economic reasons. Yes, politically there are risks of contagion across Europe to create a wave against the European ideals. France with Le Pen, Spain with Podemos. Some countries present a lot of those movements. In Italy a lot of parties in this moment support the position of Tsipras on the left, and also on the right. I think it is impossible to create a referendum in Italy for the euro, but the absolute majority of people in Italy are for the euro. Not against. In 2016 we will have a referendum on whether to accept or not accept the reforms put forward by my government, a lot of reforms. I am very confident that we will win. But this will be the place in which the people could come to real consensus or not over our political will.
But are you in principle opposed to ever having a referendum in Italy? Is it something you could ever consider in the future?
For the euro it’s impossible for the constitution. Obviously in Italy there are lots of people who say ‘After the entrance of Italy in the Euro, the country lost its position in the rankings’. But the causes of this problem are not Europe. The problem is the lack of intelligence of Italian politicians who decided let’s not make structural reforms. Germany realised reforms, Italy didn’t.
Moving now to another issue Italy has been dealing with – the tens of thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. At an EU summit regarding the redistribution of migrants, you lost your patience, and were quoted as saying: “If that’s your idea of Europe, you can keep it. Either you give us solidarity or don’t waste our time.” Now there is a deal on the table about the redistribution of migrants but it’s voluntary. Do you feel Italy has been left alone in this?
I think the problem is not about Italy, because Italy is in a condition to solve the problem alone. It’s a great problem. It’s a difficult moment, but we are able to solve the problem without Europe. But, my position wasn’t a request of help to the European people for Italy; my request was a call for the common ideals of Europe. If you think your idea of Europe is only budgets, austerity, parameters and not common ideals and common values, which means, if there is a young woman in the sea I will run to save her. If there is no possibility for her to stay in Italy, then she can return home because we organise the flights to return home for people who arrive without permission. It’s impossible to arrive in Italy without the right to stay in Italy, but if you are in the sea, I will save you because I am a human being.
Do you feel a lot of reluctance from the Northern European countries when you hear they don’t want quotas on migrants. Do you feel angry and let down by that? Is that an example for you of Europe not working?
It’s clearly an example of when Europe doesn’t work in the case of not accepting the principles. But not for the concrete problem of tomorrow. If tomorrow there is a problem, Italy’s in the condition to solve the problem. … If you have the right to asylum, and in my constitution it says we accept the people who have the right to asylum. It’s Article 10. But at the same time there are a lot of people who arrive in Italy without permission. Those guys, these people unfortunately will go back, this is a problem for the people who try to leave the country and to risk the life with the ships with the –
So you’re saying that you will send them back to their country of origin?
This is a very clear message. Italy brings these people and returns them to the country of provenance. But if Europe doesn’t accept to solve this problem, Europe loses its identity. The reasons for which Europe was born is not simply an economic agreement, not simply the currency, is not simply euro. European ideals were the real reasons for which after 70 years we can celebrate a place of peace.
One of the things that changed the situation was Libya and the instability there. You’ve gone on the record to say that a military operation there was not on the table. At the end of May, WikiLeaks released two classified documents, which say the EU is seriously looking at the option of an attack on civilian infrastructure in Libya to stop the flow of refugees and to possibly confront ISIL as well. Is the EU considering any military operation in Libya and was your government party to any of these talks?
At this moment there are no possibilities on the table for ground presence of the European Union or United Nations in Libya.
If the EU is not considering ground action, what about airstrikes? Can you categorically say that the EU isn’t considering any kind of military intervention?
At this moment, no, we are not considering any EU ground operation in Libya.
The main idea of the European Union is to support the efforts of [UN envoy] Bernardino Léon.
Three Al Jazeera journalists are facing retrial in Egypt for allegedly spreading false news and aiding and abetting terrorism. The case has been condemned by the White House, the EU as well as human rights groups like Amnesty. Italy and Egypt have a relatively close relationship and when President Sisi came to Europe you were the first person that he visited. What do you think of Egypt’s clamp-down on free media and do you think that these journalists should be released and all the charges against them wiped?
I think el-Sisi is a great leader. I think the position for Egypt is absolutely crucial in the Mediterranean and I think after a lot of crisis, polemics, tensions, finally Egypt invested in the future on the leadership of el-Sisi. Obviously, it’s a long way, it’s a difficult way and we need a lot of effort to support this process. At the same time I think it’s absolutely important to Egypt to open the legislation for a free media and I am convinced Egypt and for every part of this region it’s important to permit journalists to continue to do their jobs and for this reason I will be in contact with the Egyptian government to support every correct and position to solve this case.
But let me be very frank. In this moment Egypt will be saved only with the leadership of el-Sisi, this is my personal position and I am proud of my friendship with him and I will support him in the direction of peace because the Mediterranean without Egypt will be absolutely a place without peace.
Obviously I will give the Italian message of support for the freedom of media as is correct.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s comments have been edited slightly for length and clarity.