Debate: The Italian Referendum, Yes or No ?

Two federalists discuss the pros and cons of Renzi’s gamble

, by Michael Vogtmann, Oscar Polli

Debate: The Italian Referendum, Yes or No ?
Niccolò Caranti (cc Flickr)

On December 4th there will be a referendum in Italy about the constitutional reforms intended by Matteo Renzi. The Debate in Italy has become very heated up. Time to take a look at the facts. Two different European perspectives on a subject that affects all of Europe, not only Italy.

Maybe you should vote ’NO’ (Michael Vogtmann)

Matteo Renzi made a big mistake in attaching his political future to the positive outcome of the referendum. As in the Dutch Ukraine-vote and in the UK’s Brexit-vote, we witnessed how referenda are easily abused to complain about or overthrow a government, instead of making a decision regarding the actual subject. The risk that the same will happen in Italy now is very high. So to make this clear: This is not a vote about Matteo Renzi’s future or an opinion poll about his government! The question is: Will this constitutional reform lead to a more politically stable Italy? And since Italy is a founding country of political Europe and the third largest national economy within the Eurozone, this is a very important question for all Europeans.

Italy’s political system is bicameral. The Chamber of Deputies acts as the representation of the citizens and the Senate as representation of regions. In the past, governments needed majorities in both chambers to make new laws or start reforms. Primarily, the Renzi’s reform strives to reduce the influence of the senate on most policy fields leading to less influence of regions on national policy. To compare, the Federal Republic of Germany has a similar two chamber system. The Bundestag is the representation of citizens, while the Bundesrat the one of the federal states.

Also in Germany, there are national policy fields, upon which the chamber of regions has no influence on. A positive outcome in the Italian referendum, will lead to political system in Italy more like the German one, that has proven to be more stable in history. What this argumentation is lacking though is the federalist perspective. When comparing the German federal model to the planed reform we can recognize a major difference. In Germany, the federal states hold elections, have regional parliaments and governments that send deputies to the regional chamber in Berlin. On one hand the influence of regions on national policies is smaller, but the influence of federal states on regional policies is much larger. On the contrary, in Italy the reform will lead to a more centralized and much less federal system, which can be considered a bad thing for a large territorial state like Italy, especially considering the diverse regional culture and minorities.

“The reform will lead to a more centralized and less federal system, a risk for a large state like Italy with a diversity of regional cultures and minorities” - Michael Vogtmann

Another source of concern is the combination of this reform with the newly implemented basically undemocratic electoral law. This law guarantees a 52% majority in the Chamber of Deputies to the party, that gets most votes, making party coalition governments unnecessary. What would happen, if a national populist Beppe Grillo 5-Stelle party won the majority? It could cause chaos without its policy being checked and balanced by senate opposition. This would be a threat to the economy of the whole Eurozone and all European citizens. So maybe a ’NO’ is not the worst thing that could happen.

‘SI’ for a stronger Italy in Europe (Oscar Polli)

On the 4th of December, Italians will be called up to decide on a historic constitutional reform. Although the many important reasons PM Matteo Renzi outlined, such as speeding up the law-making procedure by restricting the role of the Senate, containing the costs of politics by reducing the number of law-makers and abolishing the CNEL. One of the most appealing reasons is the new role the Senate will occupy. With the reform, Italy will adopt a more European approach by considering the European Union as a vital force that directly impacts the lives of its citizens. Contrary to today’s Constitution, where the European Union is only cited marginally, article 55 of the reformed Constitution states that the Senate will be directly involved in the making and execution of European legislation as well as in verifying the effects and consequences of these. Therefore, it will bring the European Union closer to the citizens and this will represent an important signal of faith in the future of the European integration. In other words, it will lead to more Italy in Europe and more Europe in Italy. Ultimately, this will provide a more pro-integration course and a much more vital presence of the ideas of the EU’s founding fathers.

“Contrary to today’s Constitution, article 55 of the reformed Constitution states that the Senate will be directly involved in the making and execution of European legislation, bringing Italian citizens closer to the EU’s decision-making process” - Oscar Polli

A potential victory of the “NO” side might lead to an unpredictable and dangerous situation. Although Renzi reiterated his initial claim “to go home in case of defeat”, it somehow transformed the referendum campaign into a national test towards the government itself. If Renzi loses and resigns, a national election in the current situation maybe will lead to a victory of the leading opposition party, the Five Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grilllo. It has already advanced a proposal for an advisory referendum about Italy leaving the Eurozone. Let’s also not forget that this party joined the political group of Nigel Farage’s UKIP in the European Parliament, that aims to dissolve the European Union. Moreover, two other important parties whose popularity is on the rise might challenge the Italian future in Europe. These are the Northern League and Forza Italia. Hence, their victory could even lead to an Italexit.

This referendum will inevitably have consequences at the European level. Many people say that if this reform gets through, a Five Star Movement absolute majority government will be a possible scenario. However, this actually is due to the electoral formula. Importantly, there is now a cross-party consensus on changing it and these reasonable fears are something that can be avoided. Ultimately, this is an opportunity for change that will not happen in a while if the NO side wins. It might not be perfect, but it is a new perspective for a well-functioning political system in Italy and it places the former in a much wider context, namely Europe. Therefore, when we vote, we should do it considering that we are not just Italians living in Italy, but Italians living in the European Union.

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