ITALY has long been the biggest threat to the survival of the euro, and the European Union. Its GDP per head is stuck at the level of the late 1990s. Its labour market is sclerotic. Its banks are stuffed with non-performing loans. The state is burdened with the second-highest debt load in the euro zone, at 133% of GDP. If Italy veers towards default, it will be too big to rescue.
That is why so much hope has rested with Matteo Renzi, the young prime minister. He thinks Italy’s biggest underlying problem is institutional paralysis, and has called a referendum for December 4th on constitutional changes that would take back powers from the regions and make the Senate subordinate to parliament’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. This, together with a new electoral law that seeks to guarantee the biggest party a majority, will give him the power to pass the reforms Italy desperately needs, or so he claims.
If the referendum fails, Mr Renzi says he will step down. Investors, and many European governments, fear a No vote will turn Italy into the “third domino” in a toppling international order, after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Yet this newspaper believes that No is how Italians should vote.
Mr Renzi’s constitutional amendment fails to deal with the main problem, which is Italy’s unwillingness to reform. And any secondary benefits are outweighed by drawbacks—above all the risk that, in seeking to halt the instability that has given Italy 65 governments since 1945, it creates an elected strongman. This in the country that produced Benito Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi and is worryingly vulnerable to populism.
Granted, the peculiar Italian system of “perfect bicameralism”, in which both houses of parliament have the exact same powers, is a recipe for gridlock. Laws can bounce back and forth between the two for decades. The reforms would shrink the Senate, and reduce it to an advisory role on most laws, like upper houses in Germany, Spain and Britain.
In itself, that sounds sensible. However, the details of Mr Renzi’s design offend against democratic principles. To begin with, the Senate would not be elected. Instead, most of its members would be picked from regional lawmakers and mayors by regional assemblies. Regions and municipalities are the most corrupt layers of government, and senators would enjoy immunity from prosecution. That could make the Senate a magnet for Italy’s seediest politicians.
At the same time, Mr Renzi has passed an electoral law for the Chamber that gives immense power to whichever party wins a plurality in the lower house. Using various electoral gimmicks, it guarantees that the largest party will command 54% of the seats. The next prime minister would therefore have an almost guaranteed mandate for five years.
That might make sense, except for the fact that the struggle to pass laws is not Italy’s biggest problem. Important measures, such as the electoral reform, for example, can be voted through today. Indeed, Italy’s legislature passes laws as much as those of other European countries do. If executive power were the answer, France would be thriving: it has a powerful presidential system, yet it, like Italy, is perennially resistant to reform.
The risk of Mr Renzi’s scheme is that the main beneficiary will be Beppe Grillo, a former comedian and leader of the Five Star Movement (M5S), a discombobulated coalition that calls for a referendum on leaving the euro. It is running just a few points behind Mr Renzi’s Democrats in the polls and recently won control of Rome and Turin. The spectre of Mr Grillo as prime minister, elected by a minority and cemented into office by Mr Renzi’s reforms, is one many Italians—and much of Europe—will find troubling.
One drawback of a No vote would be to reinforce the belief that Italy lacks the capacity ever to address its manifold, crippling problems. But it is Mr Renzi who has created the crisis by staking the future of his government on the wrong test (see article). Italians should not be blackmailed. Mr Renzi would have been better off arguing for more structural reforms on everything from reforming the slothful judiciary to improving the ponderous education system. Mr Renzi has already wasted nearly two years on constitutional tinkering. The sooner Italy gets back to real reform, the better for Europe.
What, then, of the risk of disaster should the referendum fail? Mr Renzi’s resignation may not be the catastrophe many in Europe fear. Italy could cobble together a technocratic caretaker government, as it has many times in the past. If, though, a lost referendum really were to trigger the collapse of the euro, then it would be a sign that the single currency was so fragile that its destruction was only a matter of time.]]>