by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, Jan. 17 (Xinhua) -- Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta on Wednesday returned to Italy after a three-day trip to Mexico to find the leaders of the two main stakeholders in his coalition locking horns -- a major new obstacle in his efforts to construct a stable, pro-European, reform-minded government.
While in Mexico, Letta criticized the rise of populist, anti European Union movements blaming European technocrats and austerity policies for the continent's economic malaise.
He said more European integration, not less, is what is needed for European economies to emerge strongly from the crisis.
"It is very easy to blame Europe, but I think Europe is the solution," Letta said in a conference hosted by Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"If we had a stronger Europe four years ago we could have dealt with the financial crisis much more effectively. We need political leaders who are capable of confronting public opinion and saying we need more European integration because this is the only way we can confront the financial crisis," said Letta.
Since becoming prime minister in April, Letta has followed a slightly milder version of the pro-Europe austerity policies of his technocrat predecessor, Mario Monti, a former European commissioner.
He has concentrated on increasing tax revenue while reducing government spending, keeping bond yields low and paying down debt.
Analysts have noted the government's policy focus has moved toward fostering growth this year. But that may have to take a back seat toward assuring government stability if the political bickering continues.
The friction is coming from the leaders to the two largest groups supporting the Letta government, center right figure Angelino Alfano, who led a political revolt that splintered the political party founded by billionaire media mogul and three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and center-left leader Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence fresh off a landslide victory to head the party Letta is himself a member of.
The two men have never been allies.
Though Letta is the prime minister, it is the prime minister's party that traditionally sets the agenda for the government, and with two parties playing a vital role in keeping the Letta government afloat, if either defects, Letta will lack the majority he needs to govern, there was bound to be friction.
While Letta was in Mexico, it came in the form of Renzi insisting that his party, which holds more parliamentary seats than any other, though still far short of a majority, should set the agenda going forward. On the day of Letta's return, Alfano fired back, saying he would not let Renzi and his allies dictate priorities.
"Arrogance does not play well with the Italian people," Alfano warned, threatening to pull support for the government if Renzi continues to "stir things up."
Renzi and his party "should meet to decide whether Letta is the real prime minister," Alfano said. "If he is, then that's fine and in that case Letta should lead. Otherwise, we go."
Both Renzi and Alfano are ambitious, and many analysts say they both have designs on Letta's job, eventually. But they both also lack the experience, the national name recognition, and the political network to make a play for the job now.
In the end, analysts say, that may be the factor that keeps them working together even if they end up grumbling beneath their breath while they do it.
"We may see some changes, perhaps with a reshuffling of the cabinet to rebalance power," said political affairs analyst, author and commentator Antonio Basso. "But I think it's still too early for Alfano or Renzi to think about going it alone."