Not surprisingly, many commentators have simplified Sunday’s votes as meaning Austria: pro-EU and good; Italy: anti-EU and bad. I draw different conclusions from these results.
First, all the reports suggest that the biggest factors in the Italian referendum were anti-government feeling, coupled with concerns about the nature of the constitutional changes proposed by (former) premier Matteo Renzi. Fears about those changes may well have been well-founded. They were criticised for seeking to place more power in the hands of the premier and the government; an accurate criticism, given their stated intention was to allow Italian governments to operate more effectively.
The reforms included endorsement of the electoral system giving the largest party a ‘super majority’ of seats to ensure ‘stable government’, so that if the largest party received more than 40% of the votes cast, it would be guaranteed a minimum of 54% of the seats in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. Although a system of this nature was first introduced in 2005 (and is under constitutional challenge), its effect is at present limited by the powers of the Senate (upper house). The proposed reform would have substantially reduced the powers of the Senate and the influence of the Regions, and so markedly increased the ability of a party with minority electoral support to get its way. From a UK perspective we can see the downside of an electoral system which gives governments with minority support a majority of seats in parliament (whether Westminster or Holyrood).
It would have been ironical, as well as dangerous, if the changes proposed by Renzi had resulted in a future populist government getting elected in Italy with a strong majority of seats, but with minority support. Given the rise in backing for the populist “Five Star Movement”, it is by no means inconceivable that an election could have brought them to overall power in that way. It is noticeable that opposition to the changes came not just from the populist and racist parties in Italy, but also from many politicians with impeccable democratic and European credentials.
The real significance of Italy’s referendum is not its immediate impact on the country’s membership of the EU or the Euro, but on the consequences that a weakened government would have in making it harder for it to deal with major problems such as the banking and refugee crises, which in turn could (in the case of banking) weaken the single currency and place further tension on European structures. Renzi’s departure is likely to have an impact also because it will remove a powerful voice in European policy making.
So, although the Italian referendum vote should not be seen as primarily an anti-EU vote, it may nevertheless trigger consequences which will be damaging for the future prospects of the EU.
On the other hand, the result of the presidential election in Austria, was undoubtedly good news for those who support the EU and liberal values. The new president campaigned as a political leader who was up-front about support for the EU; for green policies; for refugees and human rights; and against nationalism. It is probable that not all those voted for him supported all his policies – after all, he only won a little over 20% in the first round of the elections. No doubt many did so for the simple and laudable reason that they did not want a far-right candidate to be their president. The fact that they did so, however, shows that the onward march of right-wing populism is not inevitable nor unstoppable, and politicians who make a stand against it can be elected.
What should also not be overlooked, however, was the reason Van der Bellen became the united standard bearer against the far-right was that the established parties of the left and right did so badly in the first round of the presidential elections. His victory should certainly not be seen as an encouragement of those, in the UK and EU as a whole just as much as Austria, who hope that politics does not need radical change.
Ironically, it might also be much too early to write off Renzi, or at least his reforms. The need for reforms of the Italian state is obvious. If he had not made the vote one of confidence in himself, there might have been a different result. And if the Five Star Movement performs badly in the management of the major cities which it has gained in recent municipal elections, as certainly seems to be the case in Rome, perhaps in due course some version of Renzi’s proposals for reform might be implemented, and voters turn back to his centre-left party (which is still – just – in the lead in the polls).