Italy’s referendum and the Brexit vote: a comparison

Parallels have been drawn between the June 23rd UK referendum on leaving the EU and the December 4th Italian one on domestic constitutional changes. Do such links have any validity?

Similarities:

Both attracted voters who wanted to protest specifically against the government and generally against the political class. As a result they both gave opportunities for tub-thumping anti-establishment politicians, such as Nigel Farage and Beppe Grillo to increase their profile.

The campaigns for the winning side in both cases included a very wide disparity of political opinions from the far left to the far right and many opinions between the two.

The result of both votes was a negative-not to be part any longer of the EU and to reject proposed constitutional reforms. Neither gave any idea of what the alternative might be, in the case of the UK what the future relationship with the EU would be, and in the case of Italy how the constitution might be reformed although there is widespread agreement that some reforms are needed.

Both led to the resignation of prime ministers and thereby created concerns over political stability.

Differences:

The Italian referendum was a domestic one, not one about its international relations. There are possible implications for Italy’s position in the EU as Renzi though highly critical of actual EU policies is fundamentally pro the EU and the euro, while one opposing group the Lega Nord is anti-EU while another the Movimento 5 Stelle is ambiguous about the EU and wants a referendum on euro membership. Nevertheless the euro and the EU were far from being uppermost in voters’ minds and any possible impact on these is only speculative at this stage.

The UK referendum was a voluntary choice of David Cameron whereas Matteo Renzi had according to the country’s 1948 constitution to get endorsement for his proposed reforms to that constitution because he only had simple majorities in both houses of parliament for the reforms. He would have needed two-thirds majorities to avoid the need for a referendum. However, Renzi did make the choice to package several reforms in one referendum and also to put his own job on the line thereby personalizing the referendum.

While Cameron chose subsequently to resign as a member of parliament and thereby to end his political career Renzi could still play an important role in the future.

Domestic repercussions of the vote will probably be less than those from UK referendum

We know that beyond the change of prime minister, the UK referendum has already had major implications for all political parties. It led immediately to a challenge to the leadership of the main opposition party, the Labour Party and although Jeremy Corbyn was subsequently re-elected by a large majority of the membership, the divisions within the parliamentary party have not been mended.

It is clearly possible five months after the UK referendum to know more at the political impact on the UK that two days after the Italian referendum. But there are at present no firm reasons to suppose that the consequences will go beyond the replacement of the prime minister. An election must in any case take place by March 2018. The result of that election was and remains highly uncertain but the departure of the prime minister could as easily help the Partito Democratico as hinder it since Renzi’s popularity had fallen sharply over the last 12 months. It is at present not known whether he will stay as leader of the PD. Even if he does his profile will be lower and he will have little choice but to adopt a more compromising approach. Renzi’s fall is indeed important but its impact on political stability is likely to be less dramatic than many commenters perceive. Italian governments have lasted little more than a year on average over the last 60 years.

 There is no direct impact on position in EU and any indirect impact is speculative

The referendum is only important for the EU insofar as it may prove bad for the pro-euro PD. At present its main competitor is M5S, which, if at the head of the government, could pull Italy out of the euro. Such a scenario after the next election is a possibility but that was so before the referendum. Because M5S proved able to motivate voters against the reforms and against Renzi does not mean that it will be able to motivate them to the same extent in favour of M5S and its leader, the comedian Beppe Grillo at a general election.

Some commentators have at times suggested that leaving the euro would imply leaving the EU but this would only be the case if the other leading members of the EU decided in effect to expel Italy, which is not likely. M5S is not calling for Italy to leave the EU.