We live in a world where it can be reasonably argued that global relations have never been better. We are more connected, through the use of internet and through globalisation, than ever before in the history of humankind.
As a society as a whole — despite rising levels of inequality that must be resolved — we are richer and better off than at any other time. We can span the globe in a matter of hours, we can be connected through our mobile phones to anywhere in the world, we can work anywhere at any time.
The global economy has grown, countries have raised and expanded their middle-class. In some places extreme poverty has been almost eradicated. Despite all this however, the doom-mongers are making inroads.
Take my country, Italy. An extremely beautiful place, rich in art and history. Last year, for the first time ever, a “populist” coalition took power. This was the chance for political parties that had spent all their time pushing propaganda about extravagant promises to be finally put to the test.
So far they have failed. Italy is now in a recession, major infrastructure projects have been blocked and budget-breaking proposals such as lowering the pension age and giving a guaranteed monthly income to all have been drastically reduced from original campaign proposals. Despite all this, populism still holds sway over large parts of the electorate.
However I remain an optimist. I believe in the amazing potential of my country. We need to start again from an Italian word born from the history of my home city, Florence: ‘bottega’.
The Renaissance was the most beautiful period in the history of Florence. Florence was then a small city, and it became great when it opened up to international trade.
Florentine workers started making money with wool, and clothes. Their shops and workshops — bottega — flourished as they embraced the globalisation of their time.
Shortly after those who had made a lot of money started to think that it would be right to give something back. This “giving something back” was born in Renaissance Florence.
The world today needs a new renaissance. Our universities, our businesses, our entrepreneurs are the new ‘botteghe’: the places of innovation where students can surpass the masters.
For me, the greatest risk that Europe (and Italy) faces in terms of populism is precisely linked to innovation. Or better, the lack of innovation. Populism denies the future.
It makes it seem scary, dark, and dangerous. If you live in a changing world like we do, at the speed we do, the only form of protection is to keep going forwards.
Let’s be clear: when I went into government I took on the challenge with elements of innovation. We increased the salary of workers by $100 (Dh367). We changed the rules to give more rights to women in work and in politics. We made the economy grow and we helped hundreds of thousands of people to find a job.
But today there is the risk of blocking Italy and subsequently Europe through fear of the future. If Europe stops being a pioneer, curious, an experimenter, we become mere grey executors of technocratic procedures.
The future is not a threat. Global relations will continue to improve through the construction of the United States of Europe. The European Union of today began with a small group of founding countries. It began with an agreement on steel and coal, because otherwise it would never have started.
Europeans must have the courage to work together to lay the building blocks for a new relationship between countries. We need get back to believing in the future.
Today the future terrifies us, it feels like a threat. Pessimism is in fashion today, if you declare yourself an optimist they call you crazy and the first — logical and psychological — reaction is to attack globalisation. We become nostalgic. You no longer look at the present but remember the times gone by, we start to believe that our lives were better in the past when in reality they were not.
We need to get Europe back to believing in the future. The time has come for us to understand what the next 70 years will be like for global relations.
In my opinion our future will be defined by a great battle of values and of culture. We must take inspiration from a simple, but great idea, born once again from the Renaissance.
In Florence, during the 15th century Lorenzo Ghiberti, a famous artist, was called to realise the beautiful bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery, called by Michelangelo “the Gates of Paradise”. If you examine the details of the request by the authorities of the time for this great work of art a startling truth emerges: Florence had decided to invest the equivalent of an entire year’s worth of military spending (largely for the defence of the city state) for the realisation of this incredible work of art.
It’s almost as if the city had invented the principle that for every sum invested in security, the same sum must be invested in culture. As if both spending in culture and security guarantees the defence of identity, of a city, of a people.
Culture therefore must become an element of identity of all our global relationships. Only through investing in culture can we surmount the difficulties that we face today.
We must go back to being curious, open to innovation and change. Our future, and the future of global relations, depends on it.
— Matteo Renzi is a former Prime Minister of Italy. He will be a speaker at the upcoming Ideas Abu Dhabi 2019.