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Renzi defeat fills Europe with fear of popular opinion

OK, so what’s going on? Is this some populist wave that’s sweeping all before it - on both sides of the Atlantic - or just a series of local votes on local issues that happen to have come together in 2016?

The answer, of course, is a bit of both. Each election, from Brexit to the Renzi referendum, has been about particular and localised issues, but has also been part of a much wider trend. These votes have as much in common as divides them.

Renzi lost because he was increasingly unpopular, the economy was stagnant, the constitutional reforms he was pushing were flawed, and crucially he miscalculated by making the vote about himself. All true, but it would be a mistake to think that such a massive defeat - 60-40 - had nothing to do with what’s been happening in election after election this year.

Turnout, by Italian standards, was huge at around 69%. Young people voted strongly against a moderate and centre-left government. These are symptoms of a deeper problem, a cry of anger in which a disenchanted electorate will take any opportunity to give their traditional leaders a good kicking.

Norbert Hofer, left, may have lost to Alexander Van der Bellen, right, but 47% of Austrians still voted for the defeated far-right presidential candidate. Credit: PA

The vote in Austria wasn’t so different. Amid widespread relief that Europe was not waking this morning to its first elected far-right leader since the war, people are discounting the fact that 47% of Austrians voted for a party that was founded by former SS officers. A party that’s still hugely popular and that could easily be the biggest party when parliamentary elections are held in 2018.

The European ‘establishment’, if we can call them that, now stand in terror of any test of popular opinion anywhere on the continent. And 2017 is going to be a year of big elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and possibly now Italy as well.

Will there be an early vote in Italy? Not necessarily, but it’s a lot more likely than it was just yesterday. There almost certainly can’t be a snap election because the failure of the reforms in the referendum has left their electoral law a total mess. Probably the earliest would be June 2017, but even then there are many here who are desperate to avoid a rush to the polls.

Any election would be fought out between the Five Star Movement, the Northern League and the ruling Democratic Party. Any of the three could win, but the first two are avowedly populist, anti-Euro and deeply eurosceptic. The risks to the eurozone, and to a lesser extent the EU itself, if either was to win are obvious.

Matteo Renzi's defeat was a big blow for Brussels and Berlin. Credit: PA

All of these calculations may become moot if the new government fails to sort out Italy’s banking system, much of which is close to collapse. The Italian state would be quite capable of launching an effective rescue if eurozone rules allowed it. Sadly they don’t, at least not without imposing painful losses on many Italian savers, and one can only imagine how badly that would go down.

They will probably muddle through. Italy normally does. But the reforms Renzi was asking for were an attempt to end decades of muddling through and to get the country functioning again. He lost, and so did many in both Brussels and Berlin who were counting on him as their last best hope.

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