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Italy’s Momentous Referendum

Italy is now facing a serious financial crisis that has kept the nation on the brink of a major bank failure for the last six months
By The News · 02 of December 2016 09:42:49
Matteo Renzi in Russia, No available, photo: Wikipedia

Imagine an election result that could lead to tumbling stock markets, violent protests in the streets and regional political instability.

The victory of GOP candidate Donald J. Trump earlier this month?, you ask.

No, I am referring to an election that could have even more far-reaching consequences and cause shockwaves throughout Europe.

I am talking about the upcoming referendum in Italy that will not only prove to be a test for lo Stivale, but could tear away at the fragile fabric of the entire European Union, already frayed by the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom in June.

The referendum, which is slated to take place on Sunday, Dec. 4, will encompass a series of changes to the country’s constitutional framework, specifically by limiting the power of the Senate and upping the clout of the lower house.

Under the administration of Prime Minister Mateo Renzi, who took office in 2014, Italy has been desperately trying to streamline its byzantine bureaucracy and cut through the mountains of red tape that have made the country ungovernable and have seriously stagnated the economy.

By essentially disempowering the upper house and relegating its members to a more ceremonial than statutory status, thus allowing the lower Chamber of Deputies to call the legislative shots, Renzi and his supporters have said that the path to political and economic reforms will be smoother and simpler to navigate.

If approved, the referendum could lead to a major administrative breakthrough for a country that has endured two decades of prostrated politics and has had a dizzying 63 governments since the end of the Italian monarchy in 1946.

It was on a promise to revise Italy’s parliament and invigorate the economy to which Renzi and his alliance first came to office, with a whopping 40 percent of the vote (a share not seen in any Italian election since 1958).

But now, it is increasingly uncertain whether the referendum will pass.

Why?

To begin with, Renzi was elected as the Great Savior, a fiscal hero who was set to revive the country’s moribund economy while creating new jobs, promoting education and spur productivity.

So far (and two years is a very short time in terms of political or economic reforms), Renzi has not delivered, and the Italian people are getting antsy for an alternative solution.

Moreover, Italy is now facing a serious financial crisis that has kept the nation on the brink of a major bank failure for the last six months.

By the same token, there is a growing mistrust among Italians of Europe and its policies, which Renzi has tended to advocate, leading to a drop in his popularity ratings.

Renzi was unable to pass his Senate reform program through a loggerheaded parliament, so the referendum is a bit of a Hail Mary for the leftwing leader.

Since Renzi has said he will step down if it fails, rightwing and other opposition politicians have jumped on the referendum as a vehicle for ousting him and his coalition as the authors of the plebiscite and responsible parties for the country’s economic woes.

The referendum, then, holds not only the balance of power for Italy’s parliament, but also for its premier.

Consequently, the future of Italy’s EU membership is in play.

If the referendum passes, Renzi will be vindicated by the vote and the country’s economy and political machinery will, hopefully, get a much-needed jumpstart.

But if he loses, Euroskepticism and the new nationalist movement that have been fueled by the referendum’s opponents will undoubtedly gain momentum.

Threats of EU desertion have already been raised, and international investors are concerned that Italy — already with the highest eurozone public debt after Greece — will suffer further economic and political volatility.

That instability could be contagious, infecting other EU member countries disgruntled by austerity measures and migrant concerns, ultimately leading to a multinational revolt against Brussels.

It could be the beginning of the end for the European Union.

Europe has for many decades been an anchor of solidity for the Middle East, Africa and Eurasia, and a quaking of the EU could have global implications and repercussions far beyond the peninsula of peninsulas.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at therese.margolis@gmail.com.