Magazine article The Spectator

Italy's Brexit Moment

Magazine article The Spectator

Italy's Brexit Moment

Article excerpt

Unelected prime minister Matteo Renzi is losing his own referendum campaign

Though he is a big fan of the European Union, Barack Obama brings bad karma to it. So perhaps he should not have chosen Greece and Germany, the two countries which illustrate so poignantly why the euro is doomed, for his last foreign tour.

His farewell visit is, if not a kiss of death, surely a bad omen for the EU and most immediately for one of those present in Berlin to bid him goodbye: Italy's prime minister, Matteo Renzi, who has called an all-important referendum on constitutional reform for 4 December. If he loses, as looks ever more likely, it could cause a run on Italy's sclerotic banks that could engulf the eurozone.

Obama was certainly defying the gods last month when he gave his last state dinner at the White House -- 'a swirl of Dolce Vita diplomacy', CNN called it -- in honour of the 41-year-old Renzi. The Italian prime minister, who is the leader of Italy's former communist party and the third unelected leader of this troubled country in five years, was praised by Obama as 'bold' and 'progressive'. The outgoing President was generous enough to add: 'I am rooting for [his] success.' Renzi might ask David Cameron how that kind of support tends to work out.

Ten days later, a massive earthquake destroyed the Basilica of San Benedetto in Norcia, near Perugia, built on the site where St Benedict, patron saint of Europe, was born in about AD 480.

So, as Italy gets ready to vote, the omens are not looking good for Renzi, whose motormouth oratory about tough but progressive reform to drag Italy's economy out of the mire earned him the nickname 'Il Rottamatore ' (demolition man) -- and catapulted him from being mayor of Florence to prime minister in February 2014 without so much as a general election.

Nor are the opinion polls -- the modern equivalents of haruspicy (as practised on animal entrails in Ancient Rome) -- looking much better. These show the 'no' vote in the referendum, which is constitutionally binding, consistently ahead by three or four points. They also show that up to a third of Italians have yet to decide. This is hardly surprising: only one in five, according to other polls, understands what the referendum is about.

And who can blame them? For here is the byzantine question they are called to answer with either a 'sì' or a 'no': 'Do you approve the text of the Constitutional Law concerning "dispositions for the overcoming of equal bicameralism, the reduction of the number of parliamentarians, the containment of the running costs of the institutions, the suppression of the National Economic and Labour Council and the review of Title V of Part II of the Constitution" approved by Parliament and published in Gazzetta ufficiale n.88 on 15 April 2016?'

In essence, Renzi wants to curtail the powers of the upper house, the senate, and to cut the number of senators -- who would no longer be elected, but appointed by regional governments -- from 315 to 100. If he succeeds, his economic reforms should be easier to pass.

The two houses of parliament currently have equal power which, according to Renzi, causes huge delay, hobbles decisive law-making and causes weak government. In fact, Italy spews out more laws than the British, American, French and German governments, -- many of them bad. What it needs is fewer, better laws, and a decent judicial system to enforce them, not the abysmally slow, politicised and inconclusive one it is cursed with.

The reason Italy has had 60-odd governments in the past 70 years -- all coalitions -- is not thanks to its senate but to its electoral and party systems, which make it impossible for one party to win a majority of the seats. …

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