The Italian referendum: The Pope, the Emperor and the EU

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From the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, the Guelphs and Ghibellines, two opposing factions supporting the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire, struggled for power in Italy, which was not a unique state yet. Thousands of dead men were left on the ground after these fratricidal battles. Today that spirit is still alive throughout Italy.

The heavy defeat suffered by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in the referendum for a constitutional reform last Sunday reveals how Italians are still keen on dividing themselves into opposing factions. Matteo Renzi – who is neither Pope nor Emperor – managed to refuel this feeling in the Italians such as only Mr Berlusconi was able to dofor years. During his 1000 days in power, Mr Renzi took several strong stands, challenged many ‘big bosses’ of Italian politics, even in his own party, and tried to push forward some important and controversial reforms.

Ahead of the referendum last Sunday, he put his own name on it, calling the Italians to vote yes or no on himself as a political leader. This challenge proved to be too big for the young and charismatic Italian PM, who managed to unite all his enemies – even within his own party – against him and therefore for a no vote.

But the No that the Italians shouted last Sunday was not at all addressed to the EU or to the Eurozone, like many fear in Europe. It was just a No to Mr Renzi and his leadership. Although Italy still suffers from the economic crisis, and the eurosceptic movements are rising up like elsewhere in Europe, Italy remains at the heart of the EU and the single currency, more the former than the latter. The Five Star Movement (M5S), whom many in Europe fear and in Italy represents 30 per cent of the citizens, does not have a proper eurosceptic agenda, as many of the members question the single currency but not the EU membership. But this criticism is more due to the austerity measures implemented in the EU than the Euro partnership itself.

Yet neither the EU nor the Euro were relevant to the Italians when they voted on the referendum. The Yes and No vote referred only to the controversial constitutional reform and to the Pope-Emperor Mr Renzi. After the defeat, the Italian PM agreed to stay in charge until the economic yearly law is approved on the condition of prompt elections afterwards. He is confident in winning because he obtained 40 per cent of the Yes vote at the referendum, while his enemies together got only 60 per cent. Yet his victory is all but certain. The Five Star Movement is gathering momentum in spite of some recent local scandals. If the M5S won the elections, it could hardly form a government due to the current electoral system, which is more convenient for coalitions, and the M5S ‘runs alone’.

In the uncertain political landscape, there is just one certitude in Italy: the struggle between the Guelphs and Ghibellines is unlikely to end.

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