While in the United Kingdom the centre-left may yet only be tentatively reassessing his legacy, for two of the strongest progressive sitting prime ministers in Europe, Tony Blair’s time in power serves as an example to be looked to for guidance on governing in the 2010s.
Both Matteo Renzi of Italy and Victor Ponta of Romania, whose parties scored the largest percentages for progressives in this year’s European elections (42 per cent and 38 per cent respectively) have made clear the inspiration they have drawn from New Labour’s time in power. Ponta has been Romania’s prime minister since May 2012, coming to office as candidate of the Union of Socialists and Liberals, which then won a constitutional majority in the December 2012 elections. USL broke up at the beginning of this year, but the social democrats have remained in power. Ponta has been president of his party, the PSD, since 2010. Meanwhile, Matteo Renzi has been prime minister of Italy since February 2014.
Both Renzi and Ponta have tried to associate themselves with Blair’s image, viewed as a very successful prime minister and global leader; ‘brand Blair’ is almost 100 per cent positive in the two countries.
There are many similarities as regards their approach towards the Blair Model, while, of course, due to national differences, there are also some particularities. Both Ponta and Renzi see Blair as their model of success: why not seek to learn from somebody who won three consecutive elections, by a combination of reforms and clarity of communications? There seems to be a willingness with both prime ministers to borrow institutional models that work, such as the ‘Delivery Unit’, designed to ensure and show progress on policy delivery by a government. The unit featured in Renzi’s 100-point political programme, and was evoked again in London this April, as a way to ‘keep promises’. Similar announcements have been made in Romania this year.
Similarly noteworthy is the quality of the relationship with Blair and other key New Labour figures, like Peter Mandelson. Whether in London, Bucharest, Rome or other worldwide events, Ponta and Renzi have met periodically with Blair; they have also met Mandelson. The latter was a few months ago in Bucharest at the launch of the Romanian Progressive Forum; In this context he mentioned Renzi as a model. Mandelson has a good interview in a book dedicated to Renzi, David Allegranti’s ‘The Boy’ (part of it is available here).
In terms of PR, both prime ministers tend to over-communicate: they seem to be everywhere in the media, almost on a daily basis; they also place high importance on ‘cool stuff’, online and offline, whether dealing with their own image (Renzi’s leather jacket) or drawing ‘likes’ from popular sports (Ponta’s passion for champions). Their round-the-clock media exposure carries the risk of exhaustion, but they both seem to be bearing up well for the moment. They are both young – Ponta will be 42 in September (in office at 39, the youngest prime minister Romania has had) and Renzi is 39, in his first year in office.
There are also differences. In terms of social change, Renzi has claimed to be more revolutionary, while Ponta has been more reserved on speaking of a country renewal; in exchange, he curbed the effects of austerity measures taken by the party of the current president, Traian Basescu. Ponta has constructed a lot of his political messaging to draw a distinction between him and Basescu, while Renzi has tried to define himself clearly, as a revolutionary political figure against the rest of the political environment. Both claim to be adepts of the third way, while citizens may not really understand what this means. In both countries, leaders’ personalities and the fact that they come after other long-standing leaders from opposing camps (Berlusconi and Basescu) matter much more than political doctrines and centrist nuances. In 2011, when speaking about the programme of the USL, Ponta said that ‘our programme, on the economy, is like the programme applied by Tony Blair in Great Britain’. Renzi mentioned recently the third way in the context of European parliament elections, with an additional flavour, adapted to the local political environment: ‘the third way is the one between populists and those who want to restore the past, it’s the way for Italy and Europe willing to change’
What does the future hold? The relationship has worked both ways: Blair made an endorsement as regards Renzi, in an interview with La Repubblica, as his heir in Europe. The Italian prime minister has a chance to follow in Blair’s footsteps, helped also by the current strong position Italy has in its European political family as well as holding the reins of the EU till January. Ponta has a chance of becoming the ‘Blair of the Balkans’, but in a new role: as future Romanian president, after November’s elections. With Manuel Valls, prime minister of France, also citing the influence of ‘Blairism’ the influence of the former British premier appears to remain strong.
Radu Magdin is a former press officer to the Romanian social democrats in the European parliament
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