Monday, 12 December 2016 09:00

What does the Italian referendum mean for Europe?

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Photo: European Parliament (flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On the 4th of December 60 % of Italians voted against the constitutional reform package proposed by then PM Matteo Renzi, that resigned in line with his promise to step down if he did not win the referendum. On the same day green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen won the Austrian elections for President of the Republic, against extreme right wing Norbert Höfer. And it seems that in a post-Trump, post-Brexit Europe news can only be reported in binary mode, with reference to their effects on the European Union: in this case the Austrian victory stands as a positive result for Europe, while Italy’s results would be the next domino to fall in an extremely disheartening 2016, towards dissertation of our Union. Now, whilst I too fear for the great political uncertainty this referendum result presents for Italy, it is far too nuanced a situation to befit most of the polarised mediatic representations. So with the extreme parties on the rise around Europe and the world and increasingly divisive, hateful rhetoric permeating European mainstream discourse, what do the Italian referendum results mean for Italy, Europe and the world?

What was the constitutional reform?

To begin with, let’s have a look at what the reform proposed. The reform set out to reduce the size and powers of the Senate, aiming to put an end to perfect bicameralism, a system not adopted by other European countries, with the only exception of Romania. To reduce the powers of the Senate and streamline the legislative process the reform would have worked alongside the 2015 Italicum electoral law, that will probably now need to be revisited. The second most important aspect of the reform were the changes to the division of powers and responsibilities between regional authorities and the central government, intended to reduce the grey areas that led to much litigation and to reduce the powers of regional authorities. The reform package also consisted in amending the election of the president of the Republic, by excluding 58 regional delegates from the process and promised the abolition of CNEL (Consiglio Nazionale dell’Economia e del Lavoro), a not very effective constitutional organ consisting of an assembly of experts that advise the Italian government, Parliament and regions, promoting legislative initiatives on economic and social matters. Finally, the reform package also would have introduced propositional referendums, such as what Brexit was, whereby citizens can vote suggesting legislation rather than supporting or rejecting previously approved laws.

Basta un SI or Io dico NO?

Those voting in favour of the reform, were attracted by its attempts to cut the power of the Senate and the number of MPs, which would have finally seen some cuts to the costs of politics and the ranks of the elites. The most substantial praise for the constitutional reform was for the simplification of legislative procedure, which in the current constitution may consist of a ping pong between the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, until both approve any legislation. On the other side, one of the more popular criticisms of the reform was the sheer amount of power it gave to majority parties, which led some to label the reform as “authoritarian”. For the more moderate critics the reform posed the problem that by stripping the Senate and regional authorities to this extent would leave far too much power in the hands of the central government and reduce the checks and balances in the institutional set up. However, for many due to Renzi putting his fate on the ballot, the referendum represented more of a pro-Renzi and anti-Renzi battlefield. But the picture isn’t that simple. Most believed that the reform was far from perfect; and whilst mainly the older generations perceived the reform, albeit flawed, as a step in the right direction, a vast majority of young people were extremely unsatisfied – heavily contributing to the 60% victory of the No.

The Aftermath

So what’s next for Italy? The predicted financial melt-down after the No vote has been avoided and despite calls from Movimento 5 Stelle for immediate elections, as of yesterday (11 December 2016), Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni was assigned as in charge of establishing a new temporary government, ahead of an early election in 2017. This is the 65th government in Italy since the second world war, a statistic that betrays the political instability reigning in Italy. European media and politicians have been keen to portray the referendum as a victory of the populist, anti-establishment parties. This can be seen with French leader of extreme right wing Front National Marine le Pen heaping praise on Italians for disavowing Renzi and the EU, and politician of anti-European UKIP Roger Helmer tweeting the message figured below, but these messages show that some in Europe are trying to transform this referendum into something that it’s not. Whilst it is undeniable that this result reflected support and provided legitimacy to parties such as Movimento 5 Stelle, this was not an anti-establishment vote. Many voters were genuinely concerned with the reform, also in light of criticisms raised by respected constitutionalists, and treated the referendum for what it was – a judgment on a proposal for constitutional reform. Many anti-establishment politicians and media channels have been looking to portray the referendum like this for their own advantage. Be it to foment anti-European sentiments, or British and American news channels trying to distract attention from Brexit and Trump; in a truly post-truth manner, this reportage is dangerous and misleading. Nonetheless, what happens next is crucial for Italy, and Europe’s future. Italy’s finances remain extremely fragile, and a financial crisis must be avoided at all costs, as it could also spill into the whole Eurozone.

Since I became interested in politics in my adolescence, divisive rhetoric has dominated Italian politics, which culminated in this constitutional reform referendum turning into endless months of poisonous campaigning and fierce competition between the Yes and No campaigns. With an increasingly fragmented political landscape and disenfranchised youth, Italy has a lot of work to do. With youth unemployment still at around 36%, public debt at 130% of GDP – Italians are angry and demanding change. An early election could open the way to anti-establishment Movimento 5 Stelle, a renowned protest party with very little experience. I fear that now my generation is struggling to know where to turn, and many are turning to anti-establishment parties out of frustration and anger, craving change. So what does the referendum mean for Italy and Europe? For now – nothing and this needs to be made explicitly clear. It is however an extremely precarious period for Italy and Europe, as of yet Italy most certainly is not the next domino to fall in 2016, but we must stay watch the incoming governments moves very carefully.

Last modified on Monday, 12 December 2016 15:19
Nicoletta Enria

Nicoletta Enria is Italian, originally from La Spezia, grew up in Rome, London and Frankfurt. She graduated from University College London, studying Language and Cullture and now works as Project Assistant and Social Media Assistant at the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). Follow her on twitter: @NicolettaEnria or her blog.

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