The Italian referendum on 4 December could be another crack in the EU monolith. Chris Bambery analyses the situation
“The European project is finished.” I was shocked to hear a pro-Remain politician say that privately this week. They are right. The Brexit vote and then Trump presidential victory have all rocked the European Union. While there is increasing speculation regarding next year’s election in Germany and particularly in France, another shock might well be awaiting on 4 December.
On that day Italy holds a referendum. On the ballot paper the question is about constitutional reform, regarding the country’s Senate. But few if any will vote over that. Months ago the Italian premier, Matteo Renzi, said he’d resign if he lost the poll. Over the summer he tried to back track on that but this week indicated he might go if he loses.
The referendum has turned into a vote not just on Renzi’s governance but it is also become about the EU. Italy was once one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe, in part because many Italians believed it would sort out Italy’s political system, which is seen as corrupt and dominated by a self-serving elite. This elite outdoes everyone else in the EU in looking after their careers. Instead the EU’s elite seems to have taken on all those characteristics with knobs on.
The Italian economy is in a mess. It has been stagnant or in negative growth for two decades and the IMF predicts there will be no significant economic growth until 2025. Perry Anderson notes that the Italian economy is a real cause for concern:
Since the introduction of the single currency, Italy has posted the worst economic record of any state in the Union: twenty years of virtually unbroken stagnation, at a growth rate well below that of Greece or Spain. Its public debt is over 130 per cent of GDP… Its treasury issues form the third largest sovereign bond market in the world. Nearly half of its public debt is held abroad: the comparable figure for Japan is under 10 per cent. In its combination of weight and fragility, Italy is the real weak link in the EU, at which it could theoretically break.
In the spring of this year youth unemployment nationally was 40.3 percent but that figure hid even more appalling levels in traditionally poor regions, such as the Mezzogiorno (Southern Italy) with youth unemployment in Campania at 53 percent and in Calabria 65 percent.
Jobs are increasingly precarious and pay has stagnated or fallen, with many suffering delays in getting paid. Yet Italy is the third biggest economy in the post-Brexit EU, and the second biggest industrial producer after Germany.
Many Italians blame this on the Euro, which is the old Deutschmark in disguise, which makes things too expensive, prevents it devaluing (a traditional remedy) and makes Italian exports too costly. The EU, and most importantly, the German government of Angela Merkel, is disliked for blocking any state bailout of the troubled Italian banking system, quoting new EU regulations. But everyone knows she will bail out Deutsche Bank when it finally succumbs to the hedge fund speculators.
Meanwhile, like bankrupt Greece, Italy has to carry the burden of the migrant crisis. While Austria builds a fence along its border at the Brenner Pass both countries have to deal with the vast bulk of migrants who make it across the Mediterranean with little help from fellow EU states. The grassroots effort to feed and shelter these new arrivals which goes on in Italy shames the EU (and the British government).
On the morning after Brexit, Renzi was asked to share a platform with Merkel and Francois Hollande of France to demonstrate the leading powers in the EU would hold fast to the project. Off stage he was humiliated as he was told Germany and the EU were blocking his plans for a bank rescue.
Renzi, the youthful ex-mayor of Florence took control of the Democratic Party via a coup, a parliamentary seat had to be found for him, and after winning an unexpected big election victory he liked to paint himself as an Italian Tony Blair who would bring economic reform, and the usual neoliberal measures.
That has not materialised. There has been opposition from the trade unions and on the streets but large sections of the middle classes oppose reforms, which open up Italy more than ever to the multinationals.
But the decision to hold a referendum meant all the opposition forces sensed blood. They are not a pretty bunch: the racist Northern league, Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which is not on the left as some like to believe.
So desperate is Renzi becoming he’s even taken to attacking the EU. There is a growing sense that 4 December is the day to take revenge on him and on the EU. So watch out for the result of the Italian referendum. It could will be another nail in the EU’s coffin.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.