The Italian dilemma

Flickr/European Council
Will he soon be waving goodbye? Matteo Renzi connected his future to the outcome of the referendum on 4th december.

If I vote YES, I tell Renzi, “please, go ahead”. Laws will be passed more quickly, but by people of the same party, who perhaps don’t represent my values. If I vote NO, Renzi might resign, but then we will enter unknown waters.

If I vote YES I will defend a certain idea of Europe, even if today’s Europe is going in another direction from my values. I will support the stability of my fragile country in the face of rapacious markets, ready to attack Italy and its interest rates. If I vote NO, I offer the country to Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement and then we don’t know what could happen to Italy, the eurozone and even Europe.

This is the intense dilemma Italians have been in since last April, when Mr Renzi announced he would leave politics if he lost the referendum on constitutional reforms, required by law, to modify 47 out of 130 articles in the Italian Constitution. Thus, a very technical, complicated election question became a fundamental political vote. The same thing that happened in the United Kingdom with David Cameron who had this brilliant idea to link his political future to a referendum on whether to leave or remain in EU (at least Renzi was obliged to call a referendum, as his reform didn’t reach a qualified majority in parliament). And we know the mess he has landed his country in since British citizens voted to leave the EU.

A Bad Reform

On the 4th of December Italians have to decide whether they want to change their constitution or not, but they know they will also be answering the indirect question whether they want Mr. Renzi to continue as Prime Minister or if they prefer a change. So, even if they don’t think this reform is well or badly done, or not enough, now they know their vote will have political consequences on the whole system.

15 percent of the voters have not decided yet, and it’s possible that in the end lots of them will not go to vote at all. But in this case, the referendum is still valid (no quorum required), it just risks helping the “No” side which is already very strong in the polls (the latest predicted a narrow 7 points lead for NO). All right-wing parties, including Forza Italia and League Nord plus the powerful Five Star Movement and almost all constitutionalists say this reform is no improvement, that on the contrary, it will create confusion between the regions and the state, will not significantly reduce the enormous costs of politics and, worst of all, that it is giving too much power to the prime minister. It indeed contains a new electoral law which gives a huge majority bonus to the winning party. The difference is that while the opposition parties call for a NO to get rid of Renzi, many other normal citizens are seriously worried about destroying the democratic structures our republican fathers built after the Second World War.

Need to Change

Renzi and the YES campaign on the other side are using this referendum and the constitutional reform to show that they are at least changing things and trying to turn Italy into a modern country. It is true that before Renzi, many others (D’Alema, Berlusconi) tried to change the constitution without success. Even the much appreciated minister of finances, Pier Carlo Padoan said a Yes to the Referendum would help the Italian economy as reforms would proceed and be cut short.

Worries of Instability

“Have you already applied for Belgian citizenship?” asked Giuseppe, an old friend of mine, yesterday, while drinking some good Italian wine and discussing (no “about”) the only topic on the table in the last three months. “Why should I?” I asked, very surprised (I have a residence permit in Belgium, but I remain an Italian citizen). “Are you crazy?” he insists. “If he wins the elections he will take Italy out of Europe”. “He” is Beppe Grillo, the 68-year-old former comedian who founded the Five Star Movement seven years ago. Today some polls say it is the first party in Italy. This movement attracts people of different origin and experience, left, right, civil rights versus conservatism, opponents of illegal immigration versus a green economy. Their common ground is the fight against corruption and the waste of money in politics. But Grillo is also openly against the euro and EU membership. He has already said he would ask for a referendum to leave the EU if he wins the next elections. Heading towards new elections is a possible scenario if Renzi loses this referendum.

Recent polls say (if still credible..) that the Democratic Party (Renzi) and the Five Star Movement (Grillo) are neck and neck at around 30 percent. The climate is therefore very uncertain and with this feeling of “everything goes bad” that Italians have been trapped in for at least 10 years, it is difficult to predict how they could vote in a referendum to remain in the EU. Until June, the Italian research institute “Demopolis” reported that “80 percent of Italians are still in favor of remaining in the EU”. But a recent Germano-Italian poll, published in October by the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, says that “43 per cent of Italians are now aware of the disadvantages of EU membership; only 21 percent are convinced of the contrary”. And above all, we know from the experiences of other countries that when people go to vote in a referendum, they include many other reasons than the one they are called to vote for.

Many people fear that. Beppe Grillo might be a good thing for the opposition but the idea of him governing the country, dealing with the markets and European partners, is another story. This stability argument might help the “Yes” campaign, especially because Italians are very tired of seven years of deep economic crisis and tough reforms (in the “Troïka” style: cuts in pensions, increased taxes, reduction of health services). Now that growth is very slowly recovering again, they don’t want to see the country at the mercy of markets and teh dictates of European institutions. This need for stability is playing a major role in favor of the YES campaign. The YES side says: The reform Renzi prepared with his close colleague Maria Elena Boschi might not be perfect, because it will only save parliamentary costs of 40 million Euros per year (overall costs are 1.5 billion Euros per year, a record in Europe!) and “Italicum”, this new and already much criticized electoral law, which belongs to this package, might be as bad as the current one, but at least Renzi is really trying to change things. They prefer Renzi to the chaos of new elections.

A new Constitutionalist Patriotism

What was very much underestimated by all, but above all by Renzi’s entourage, is the attachment of Italians to their constitution. Parliament is probably too big and expensive, the approval process for laws is too long, but this is a constitution which was written after two years of civil war between the Republican Fathers and supporters of Mussolini and German occupants. Moreover, after the victory of the republic over the monarchy in 1948, this wound between monarchists and republicans remained in the country and was very painful during the terrorism years in the ’70s. Today, in a country disoriented and disheartened by the crisis, where nearly 40 percent of young Italians are without a job or going abroad, where families have lost 40 percent of their purchasing power in ten years, the 70-year-old Italian Constitution remains a cornerstone of the nation. It’s a guarantee of national cohesion and the balance of power.

In the end, at least one good thing will come from this referendum: it reminds us Italians of our attachment to our democratic history and opens up a debate on the future of the nation. For…well, at least the next 70 years.

The main points of the Reform:

  • Senate : Parliament will still be composed of two chambers, but the Senate will be reduced in power and number, going from 315 senators to 100, chosen by the regional councils allowing counselors to also become senators. It will not participate in the legislative process, except for a few occasions; this huge change will allow the State to save €40 million of the €1.5 billion that Parliament spends every year.
  • The Chamber of Deputies will be solely authorized to give a vote of no confidence to the Government; the Chamber will be responsible for approving laws;
  • Electoral Law: a new law is proposed, the “Italicum”, with a proportional system and a 15 percent bonus for the party or coalition which achieves 40 percent. So in the end, the winning party or coalition can have 340 out of 617 members in the Chamber. 
  • Regions: they lose many powers which go back to the central government and the word “province” disappears from the Constitution;
  • Referendum: 150,000 signatures needed to call for a new referendum, instead of 50,000 today