Debating the Italian referendum in Brussels

EPA/MAURIZIO BRAMBATTI

Italian Prime Minister and Secretary of the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico / PD), Matteo Renzi, speaks on stage of the PD national demonstration for the 'Yes' in the referendum on constitutional reform in del Popolo's square in Rome, Italy, 29 October 2016.

Debating the Italian referendum in Brussels


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On December 4, Italy is slated to hold a crucial referendum. At stake is the reform of the country’s Constitution proposed by the current government. The reform will see, among other things, Italy’s two chamber system radically change. The Senate will see its duties drastically reduced and it will be composed of regional and city councilmen.

With the vote nearing, the campaign is in full swing and for the first time is involving Italians abroad. Several politicians on both sides of the campaign have travelled around the world to promote their view on the issue. Brussels is no exception, given the importance of the local Italian community.

Over the past two days, there were meetings with the public led by important figures in favour and against the reform. The Basta un Si (A Yes is enough) committee organised a public meeting with Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni in between the Eurogroup meeting of Foreign Ministers, whilst the Io dico No (I say No) had Vice-President of the Italian Parliament Luigi Di Maio, MPs Gianluca Vacca and Simone Valente, and MEPs Isabella Adinolfi and Ignazio Corrao.

The main sponsor of Basta un Si is the Democratic Party (PD). Its meeting was held in the Piedmont regional office, which has a spacious hall and wine bar. Several activists from around Europe joined to explain what they have been doing in order to promote their view. Activities included aperitifs with other expats and dinners at home with other undecided expats. Activists from Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the UK expressed their engagement with the campaign and spoke in positive terms about their experience so far.

Gentiloni gave a longer speech in which he praised the activists and underlined the importance of the reform. He also said how curious Italians abroad are about the referendum. In the Eurogroup, he has been asked many times about situation and, according to him, he was even asked about the referendum during his recent trip to Mali.

The minister didn’t touch on all the aspects of the reform in his speech, only some. Most notably, Gentiloni spoke about the reform of the Senate. He said that even the current system, which dates back to 1948, was accepted as a compromise by the Constituent Assembly. A reform of the model that has both the Parliament and Senate sharing the same duties and powers has been discussed repetitively throughout the years and in his view, it is an upgrade needed and much awaited.

The second aspect that Gentiloni spoke about was about the so-called Titolo V (Article V) that reshapes the duties of local governments in favour of the central state. About this, Gentiloni admitted that the actual situation, a result of previous Constitutional reforms, was a mistake that his party made, leaving a more confusing situation that needs to be clarified.

After the meeting, the minister went away whilst the committee invited the participant to have a glass of wine and discuss the reform one-on-one.

The Io dico No meeting was held in the Huis van het Nederlands, in one of its auditoriums. After a brief introduction by a local activist, the five MPs and MEPs gave one brief speech each and then passed the floor to questions from the audience.

All the politicians are part of the Five Star Movement and one of them, Luigi Di Maio, is one of the most prominent politicians. His speech was probably the longest and focused on the opportunity that a victory of the “No” vote would bring, with Matteo Renzi’s promise to resign. He thinks a victory of the “No” vote is a chance to “send back home” the current elite. He explained how the reform and most of the government policies of the past months have been made trying to conserve power and to avoid a Five Star Movement government.

Most of their speeches were very generic against the reform, and focused more on related topics or other issues that the Movement deems important. For instance, they spoke at length about the electoral law, explaining their own proposal that they will table to the President of the Republic in case of the government’s collapse. Also, another topic touched on was about lowering the cost of politics, one of the Movement stauncher propositioned. They were keen to underline how the reform won’t save much money as the government said, and rather their proposals will.

The audience’s questions were more focused on some aspect of the reform, but the mood was generally against it and with the hope that it won’t pass. A good part of them were mostly concerned with the votes from Italians abroad, that Di Maio earlier called at risk of fraud and invited all the public to be careful.

The meetings were both full of people, with no clear distinction between the two groups. On both sides, there were young professionals and older citizens, as well as older and younger expats. It shows that there is the will to confront and know more about the topic and the referendum. It also shows the different positions of Italy’s main parties.

The Five Star Movement is leading in the polls at a national level and it is not hard to see them gaining more and more votes. In many ways, they are in the same mould of many populist movements that are gaining importance all across the world and in the same way they may have avoided more technical questions or to dig deeper in their own proposal. Di Maio mentioned their ideas for a Constitutional reform but never really explained the details.

On the other hand, the Democratic Party and the “Yes” front have the advantage of being the government party, however this has lead them to sink in preferences and the reform is suffering from this. Moreover, the Democratic Party is not united on the issue. A minority is being led by former secretary and two time minister Pierluigi Bersani that is supporting the “No.” Gentiloni was very critical of these choices, noting that it is not the first time that the party showed signs of self-destruction.

 

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