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Renzi’s Big Gamble

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Italy is heading to the polls to vote on constitutional reform. It’s being cast as a referendum on Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – and the EU will be watching closely if yet another member descends into political chaos.

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© REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

It hasn’t exactly been an easy year for Europe. The Brexit vote dealt the EU a shocking blow. Nationalist movements are on the rise. And the refugee crisis has driven deep rifts across the bloc. Now, a looming referendum in Italy is threatening to become the EU’s next big headache – and the outcome is still very much uncertain.

On December 4, Italians will decide whether they are for or against reshaping the country’s constitution, and nerves are on edge. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has dubbed this the mother of all reforms – landmark changes that will chart a new course for Italy in the coming decades. Renzi has argued that constitutional reforms are necessary to make Italy more modern and efficient, more compatible with the EU, and better equipped to face the challenges of a rapidly globalizing world.

The prime minister even staked his own political future on the plebiscite, initially vowing to step down if the country voted “no.” Renzi’s gamble looked like it would pay off earlier this year, when he was still seen as a powerful reformer. But confidence in him has eroded and his position now looks increasingly uncertain. The very referendum that was supposed to stabilize Italian politics might be derailed by political instability, with Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) deeply divided heading into the vote.

The prime minister’s planned reforms would overhaul Italy’s current bicameral system, where two equally powerful chambers are constantly wrangling for power, making it near impossible to legislate. In the new system, the Chamber of Deputies would be tasked with votes of confidence and passing laws. The Senate, on the other hand, would be slimmed down considerably from 315 to 95 lawmakers. It would be responsible for constitutional amendments and for laws directly affecting Italy’s twenty regions, and it would be made up of regional and city representatives, though whether those representatives should be directly elected or selected by regional parliaments is still a point of contention.

Double the Trouble

Renzi’s troubles started back in April, when fifty lawyers and constitutional experts publicly rejected the prime minister’s plans. It wasn’t the constitutional reforms they were against, though – they were protesting the new, overhauled electoral law that Renzi’s government already pushed through in 2015. Italicum, as the electoral law is called, is a central part of the prime minister’s reform agenda and is meant to stabilize the coalition building process.

Under the law, if a winning party manages to get more than 40 percent of the vote, it automatically receives 55 percent of seats. If no party reaches forty percent, the two biggest parties face off in a runoff. Smaller parties are still represented in parliament as long as they get three percent of the vote, but they no longer wield the power to block governments from forming. Also, national party leaders now handpick the candidates they prefer to serve.

The law went into effect this July despite strong opposition, and is seen very much in tandem with the upcoming constitutional referendum. For many lawmakers, the twin reforms are a blow to democracy because they chip away at important checks and balances put in place after World War II, concentrating too much power in the hands of the prime minister.

Opposition to the constitutional reform has since grown steadily and, as Luciano Fontana, editor of the daily Corriere della Sera, pointed out, it has forged unlikely alliances: well-known lawmakers from Silvio Berlusconi’s fold, members of the former Christian Democrats (DC), representatives from the right-wing Lega Nord, neo-fascist parties like the Italian Social Movement (MSI) and Tricolour Flame, and the socialist Left Ecology Freedom (SEL) party are all in the fray. And then there are the members of the prime minister’s own PD, threatening to split the party down the middle.

Renzi is seen as arrogant and out of touch, driven by a constant need to intervene. Those qualities have rubbed many the wrong way in Rome, and the prime minister has built a healthy list of political enemies during his time in office.

The EU’s Next Problem Child?

The December 4 vote has thus turned into a plebiscite on Renzi rather than on constitutional reforms. The government has scrambled to refocus the discourse, but to little avail. Current polls indicate the vote will come down to the wire. Eugenio Scalfari, co-founder of the daily La Repubblica, believes Renzi’s political career both as head of the PD and of the government will be over if the “no” vote prevails.

Italy’s defense minister, Paolo Gentiloni, is already sounding the alarm over the possible fallout. If the “no” camp wins, he warns, the country would fast become the European Union’s next problem child. And this is coming at a time when Brussels sorely needs a stable and functioning Italy: Both France and Germany will be holding key general elections next year, with National Front leader Marine Le Pen in play for the French presidency and the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) likely to secure enough votes to be represented in the Bundestag.

Culture minister Dario Franceschini (also of the PD) is urging voters to make Italy a beacon of light in troubled times. In a year when the Dutch (on a very low turnout) rejected an EU association deal with Ukraine, when Britain voted to leave the union, and when Hungary dismissed Europe’s refugee quota system, Franceschini argues that Italy is voting on a referendum that would make it a reliable partner abroad.

When in Doubt, Call Renzi

Italians love to play a leading role on the global stage, so they are particularly sensitive when left out in the cold. After Renzi publicly voiced frustration over the lack of progress at the EU summit in Bratislava, he was excluded from a post-summit powwow with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, France’s President François Hollande, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. It was seen as a rebuke in Rome.

So Renzi was all the more pleased to accept Barack Obama’s invitation to a state dinner at the White House. The president made a point of praising Renzi’s reforms and his economic policies – the very same policies that have defied Brussels and Berlin.

Obama’s endorsement didn’t go down well with the “no” camp in Italy. In a talk show, former leftist Prime Minister – and Renzi-foe – Massimo D’Alema called on Washington and Brussels to worry about their own affairs instead of Italian politics. But Italian politicians across the board have championed closer ties with partners abroad in recent years – even if that meant abiding by Brussels’ rules and norms.

In the run-up to the referendum however, says Danilo Taino, Corriere della Sera’s Germany correspondent, that very same perspective has fallen out of favor. The EU is seen as undemocratic and hostile. That, argues Taino, is a danger: Indulging in nationalist and opportunistic arguments means Italy is turning its back on the chance to play a big role in shaping Europe’s future.

The Day After

In Brussels and across Europe, there is growing speculation over the consequences of a “no” vote on December 4. Rumors are brewing of an emergency government and new elections. Whatever the outcome, Renzi has sealed his fate. It’s likely he realized the gravity of his decision after watching David Cameron’s post-Brexit vote demise – and that might be why he has started to backtrack on the question of his resignation in recent weeks. “We’ll continue to govern as we have until now, with the same numbers in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies,” he was quoted as saying.

But if the “no” vote prevails, there will be no going back to the way things were, either for Renzi or the EU.