Anti-Euro Populists Embolded by Italy Vote—But Should They Be?
"Italy's no vote does not fit quite so neatly into the narrative of a populist revolt against globalization and elites"
While far-right populist forces in Italy and beyond are claiming Sunday's referendum outcome and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's subsequent resignation as a victory, others say that while the losers are clear, the winners of the vote on constitutional reform are far less obvious.
The plebescite asked Italians to vote on a package of changes to the country's constitution, which would have afforded more power to Renzi and future prime ministers. A broad coalition of opponents included anti-establishment and right-wing parties—leading some to wonder if the vote "could ultimately lead to Italy's exit from the E.U."
But "Italy's no vote does not fit quite so neatly into the narrative of a populist revolt against globalization and elites," wrote Luigi Scazzieri of the Center for European Reform on Monday, responding to those who declared the vote in line with those for Brexit in the U.K. and Donald Trump in the U.S..
"Themes such as globalization and immigration did not feature as strongly in the debate," Scazzieri explained. "Instead, after Renzi stated that he would resign if the constitutional reforms were rejected, the debate was focused on his own record as prime minister. And while of course populists voted no, many of the other no voters did so against the substance of the reforms, arguing that they were anti-democratic and would have altered constitutional checks and balances. Unlike Britain and the U.S., where elites were homogeneously in favor of remaining in the E.U. and opposed to Trump, in the Italian case, the political establishment and the experts were split in two."
And while the vote will almost certainly result in political and financial upheaval, the outcome "looks less like a rejection of Europe and the political establishment, and more like a serious miscalculation on the part of Renzi," journalist Noah Barkin argued at Reuters, citing polls that "show that a solid majority of Italian voters are in favor of both the E.U. and the euro."
Indeed, New Statesman correspondent Stephen Bush pointed out, "a vote that was supported by Silvio Berlusconi, two of the three major parties, as well as Mario Monti, the technocrat appointed effectively on the demands of Italy's creditors, and the Economist [cannot] be accurately described as a revolt against 'the establishment' if that term is to have any meaningful use whatsoever."
Bush pushed back further online:
I'm sorry, a vote for the status quo, backed 2/3 of the major parties, cannot be described as "Oh, 2016!" "Oh, populism!"
— Stephen Bush (@stephenkb) December 4, 2016
A takeover by the populist Five Star Movement is unlikely either now or in the next election. The movement may run out of steam, as it increasingly becomes embroiled in political mishaps arising from its administration of Rome and Turin. Crucially, planned electoral reforms are likely to lead to a form of proportional representation that will make it difficult for any single party to form a government. The continuation of coalition governments will exclude the Five Star Movement, which refuses to take part in them.
And any new Italian government is likely to behave in the same way as Renzi's government did towards its European allies, seeking to bend fiscal rules in its favour and to press for a more expansive fiscal policy. It will also continue to demand solidarity from the E.U. with its efforts to deal with migrants and to rebuild the areas affected by recent earthquakes.
"Italy is unlikely to be the domino that leads to more instability in Europe," he concluded.