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No, Renzi's Loss in Italy Is Not Due to Nationalism. But It Does Have Global Consequences

AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

The latest high-stakes political vote to grip the world ended in shock and dismay for Italy’s now-departing Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. 

Renzi resigned after following through on a promise to leave his post if a referendum to alter the country’s constitution that he campaigned heavily for failed. 

Some are hailing it as yet another sign of the dark tide of nationalist populism cresting throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world — Britain’s Brexit, Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism, the election of Donald Trump in the US, and numerous other examples. 

Read More: From Brexit Britain to America: How to React If the Other Side Wins

But the situation in Italy isn’t as simple as that. Unlike those situations, the vote in Italy is not a black-and-white case of xenophobia or an example of trumped up nationalism. Other factors were at play.

“This wasn't a vote on the EU and migration was not mentioned in the campaign,” Mattia Toaldo, a policy fellow for the European Council of Foreign Relations’ Middle East & North Africa program told Global Citizen. “The British press has tried to portray this as an equivalent to Brexit but this is quite the opposite."

“In fact, the majority in Italy chose the status quo,” he said. “If you look at the demographics, an overwhelming majority of under-34 years old voted no.”

Renzi’s defeat does mean the retreat of a global citizen, a leader who thought beyond his borders. And the ultimate outcome could resemble what has happened elsewhere — a sharp inward turn for Italy. 

More likely, however, not much will change in Italy. 

“[Italy will go] in a very familiar direction,” Toaldo said. “A technocratic government or maybe even a new political government and in both cases the parliamentary majority will likely be the same that supported Renzi.  

“This isn't the end of the world and comparing it to Trump's victory or Brexit shows just superficiality," he said. 

Renzi, like Germany’s Angela Merkel, is seen as a bulwark against the nationalism and xenophobia on the rise in Europe. While other figures could take up this mantle, the philosophy behind it has been dealt blow after blow in recent months. 

Read More: In Defence of Global Citizenship: A Response to Theresa May

What the referendum does do is further weaken the European Union, which has fragmented since the 2008 financial crisis, when broad schisms of power were revealed between Northern and Southern countries. If the EU faces further stress in the months and years ahead — say, the election of far-right parties in France and Germany — then it’s likely that the euro will be abandoned and, from there, the whole project could fail.   

Without Renzi courting foreign investment, the Italian economy could further tank, potentially opening up a path for the far-right to gain power. 

“The propaganda of the regime and all its lies are the first losers of this referendum,” Beppe Grillo, the leader of the anti-establishment, nationalist Five Star Movement, wrote on his blog following the vote. “Times have changed.”

While Five Star and other nationalist groups do not have broad support in Italy, they could exploit economic fears to grow their bases. 

An Audacious Plan

This all started when Renzi, like David Cameron in the UK, introduced a blockbuster referendum that put the country at a dramatic crossroads.  

Renzi’s referendum wanted to streamline the government by reducing the senate, putting more power in the executive branch, and doing away with red tape and bureaucratic protocols. 

These measures would have changed roughly a third of the country’s constitution, which was conceived after World War II with broad political support.

Renzi wanted to change what he viewed as the dysfunctional political system that stood in the way of meaningful reform. The economy has contracted 10% since 2007 and has fallen into three recessions. 

In this context, his measures were viewed by some as a necessary antidote to stagnation. But Renzi made what some are calling a fatal decision: he said he would resign if the referendum failed. 

Suddenly, the opposition made the referendum all about Renzi, rather than the issues. The issues likely would have failed on their own merits, since they called for drastic restructuring, but by allowing the opposition to consolidate against Renzi’s personality, the vote faced much more daunting odds.

And, on Sunday, it was resoundingly defeated. Now Renzi is on his way out. The vote breakdown, however, complicates prevailing narratives. 

“It is striking that 81% of under 35s voted for ‘No,’” David Broder, a member of the Historical Materialism editorial board, told Global Citizen. “Such a polarized vote evidently has more to do with economic issues, mass youth unemployment, and young Italians' lack of prospects more than it has to do with concern for the role of the Italian Senate.” 

“Ultimately, most people did not care, or were actively pleased by the prospect of [Renzi’s] resignation,” Broder said, “and it also served to intensify and polarize the debate, also allowing hard-Right parties to add their own agenda to a ‘No’ vote.”

For these and other reasons, the outcome in Italy can’t be lumped together with the vote for Brexit or Trump. Unlike those events, anti-immigration and anti-globalism did not seem to prominently influence voters. Further, in both the US and Britain, the vote fell along age lines — the young voted against Brexit and against Trump. In Italy, meanwhile, the youth overwhelmingly rejected the proposal, suggesting that economic insecurity is the one key area of overlap.

Read More: Trump Rails Against Globalism In First Post-Election Rally

“Large sections of Europe's middle and working-class populations are effectively being abandoned,” Broder said. “Because in the period of globalisation, capital in general and multinational employers simply do not need their labour in order to make profits.”

Another significant difference exists that bodes well for Italy: Renzi’s coalition will retain control. His successor will pursue some version of his agenda; his defeat does not usher in a stark new era of politics.  

Renzi is an ambitious and nimble politician who rapidly rose to power in 2014. He was intent on modernizing the government, kickstarting the economy, and making Italy more active on the global stage. He had already pushed through controversial labor reforms and was instrumental in courting investment to a country badly wounded by the 2008 financial crisis. Renzi also helped to increase Italy’s overseas development aid budget, which has increased by 59% since 2012. Further, he positioned Italy as a powerful international actor through his leadership in the G7 and G20. 

Renzi is still highly popular and could make a comeback to politics, even as soon as 2018. In the meantime, coalitions that Renzi helped forge will continue to hold power. Whether they will be able to improve the country is another question. 

“In the longer term however Italy has a chronic lack of investment in infrastructure, huge brain drain and a rapidly aging population,” Broder said.  

“The obvious solutions would involve helping more young people into work,” he said. “To do that Italy needs to invest in infrastructure, break up the patronage networks and personal connections that pervade the state (no mean feat, this) and stop starving educational institutions of resources, forcing those who want to study to emigrate.”