Italian senator: The ‘EU is very discredited in Italy’

Beppe Grillo: The one-time Communist, turned populist. [Triesteprima/Flickr]

On Sunday (4 December), Italy will hold a constitutional referendum that may usher in the country’s first populist, Eurosceptic government. EURACTIV Poland spoke to Senator Paolo Guerrieri about the significance of the vote.

Paolo Guerrieri is an Italian Senator (Partito Democratico) and a member of the upper house’s Economic Program and Budget Committee. Guerrieri is also a professor of economics at the Sapienza University of Rome.

Guerrieri was interviewed by EURACTIV Poland’s Editor-in-Chief, Karolina Zbytniewska.

2016 has been a year of major populist and anti-establishment electoral and referendum choices across Europe.

The Italian referendum campaign started fundamentally as an issue of the much-needed constitutional reform, with support of a large popular majority. The case was to overcome the rule of so-called ‘perfect bicameralism’ that has been inefficient, slowing down any decision-making process. However the meaning of the referendum has been transformed, and it has turned from a constitutional into a political one – a confidence vote in Renzi. In other words YES or NO will mean YES/NO to the government and to the current political majority.

It was Renzi’s fault to have personalized and politicised the referendum.

Originally it was the fault of Renzi, who turned the result into a plebiscite about his government. In effect today the constitutional reform itself is the third or fourth reason why the people are going to vote. The main reason is, again, Renzi’s government. A NO is not only a NO to a Renzi government, but also to the establishment in general. Because a significant part of the NO is the Five Star Movement (M5S) – and it is not against the Renzi government, it is against any government run by an original traditional party.

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So the NO today is a mix of many heterogeneous motivations from left to the right. And the polls are showing today these motivations are in the lead. But still the number of undecided voters is high. My prognosis of the result is 50/50 because, for example, young people are generally for NO in the referendum because they are anti-establishment. But young people like the polls but at the end of the day only few are going to vote.

If you take the youth aged between 18 and 29, a strong majority of more or less 60 to 40 are for NO. Young people in this country are strongly supporting the populists from M5S. The Democratic Party (PD) which has some 30% of the consensus has only 10% among the youngest. So the referendum is reflecting a more general approach of young people in Italy.

What is the Italian definition of establishment? And what does the anti-establishment have to offer?

Establishment is always someone running the government or – in wider terms – the majority in the government. So in Italy the PD is a major target of the anti-establishment populists. But when you are asking what these anti-establishment politicians want, it is difficult because they don’t want something (specific); they only know what they don’t like.

It’s what the populists have in common. Easy solutions without rational – especially economic – backing.

They all have a similar agenda: more jobs, more income, more public spending. But where are resources coming from? The answer is: “we will see”. They promise that when they have the responsibility of running the government they will show that everything is possible. But of course it is just populist manipulation. Very simple solutions to very complex problems.

Simplistic solutions.

And the problem is that simple and simplistic solutions are usually wrong. But nevertheless people grasp this simplicity. And this is a problem.

Why has Renzi lost his support? Three years ago he was perceived as a dream boy, the hope for Italy. And he has been actually doing what he promised.

It is extremely difficult to run any government in any European country today. So Renzi pays a price that any PM in any Southern country of the EU would pay.

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What is going negatively for him is the economy. It hasn’t improved much. Of course we are in the recovery process now, but this recovery was – and is – too modest. Growth at the level of “zero point something” is not enough to respond to highly deteriorated economic and social conditions. And so, economic conditions are according to my analysis the most significant reason for the declining popularity of Renzi.

Thirdly, it is about himself. As you say, he was very popular in the beginning but he bet so much about improving Italian living and political standards, that when he hasn’t deliver accordingly people turned away from him. His storytelling was very effective at the beginning with “we are back” and “Italy is returning”. People believe you because they like your story but when there is no support in facts they get disappointed. In effect the decline in the popularity towards Renzi’s government has been indeed very significant. And nobody knows what would happen in the next political elections.

Opinion polls show there’s a fair chance that the populist M5S will win.

Many fear that, especially if the electoral law is not going to be changed. Because we have the “Italicum” – this is the name of the electoral law. It means there are two rounds in choosing the ruling party. In the first round, every party runs, while two parties with the highest vote go to the second round. Many fear that M5S will be one of the two parties in the second round, and in a tripolar political system like the current Italian one – PD, M5S and centre-right – the second round will be won by the M5S by receiving the support of the centre-right electorate. The risk is big. And so we should find an effective way of responding to the populist challenge and narrative.

Is the EU a subject in the electoral campaign now?

Unfortunately the EU is very discredited in Italy, although it has nothing to do with many problems facing Italy and Italian economy. Still the EU is strongly opposed by most of the parties, including M5S who are already proposing about a referendum for Italy to stay or leave the euro area or even the whole EU, a sort of Italexit. The PD is the only major party supporting the view that Italy needs Europe although significant changes are needed in the European Union. Because the truth is that without an integrated Europe, Italy is going to be like many other individual member countries – a small, marginal, irrelevant actor in the multipolar world dominated by big poles like the US, China, India etc. The fact is that one of the reasons of the popular discontent for the EU is the diffuse habit of treating Europe as a scapegoat of all the national problems.

So what are the benefits of Italian membership in the EU?

Beyond security reasons our country for many years has been benefitting from EU funds – cohesion funds, social funds. How they were managed is another story. Most of the northern regions were very effective in using these funds, others, mostly in the South simply wasted this money. But in general terms, Italy benefitted significantly and many people should realize this.

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We should also explain to Italian citizens what I already said – that without the European Union, Italy could become an irrelevant country with all major economic problems still to be solved. If the EU is going to become fragmented or even disintegrate, Italy is going to pay a very high price, one of the highest in Europe.

Certainly Europe should change to respond to the current big global challenges. Today the EU is not delivering enough security to European citizens in the context of migration and terrorist threats. And we all know that security is a European public good and the European level is crucial to have an effective response, Unfortunately so far we haven’t seen effective positive initiatives in his field.

Because for Europe to be effective, solidarity among the member states is essential.

Solidarity is important and was a building block of the European integration process. But today solidarity is discredited at a European level and it means, “I want your money,” “I want to be rescued”, and there is a lack of trust across member countries.

And Italians perceive Poland as a bad guy of European solidarity, turning its back when assistance in the refugee crisis is highly needed?

Poland is a big member country and we are impressed that it behaves like a free rider. It seems a country that wants to take, but doesn’t want to deliver. One should add that free riding is today very popular in Europe, since many member countries are pursuing this path. The problem is that if all member countries become free riders, who is going to contribute to the survival and strengthening of the EU?

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