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Italy and Austria

by Bill Emmott on December 5, 2016

Pro-Europeans may have been sad to lose Matteo Renzi, after the Italian prime minister’s crushing defeat in his constitutional referendum, but were relieved that Austrians rejected the far-right candidate in their re-run presidential election.

Neither reaction is sound, at least not for the longer term. The battle to save Europe is on. Winning it requires sobriety and determination, not sentimentality.

Matteo Renzi had failed. That is why he lost his referendum, with the “no” camp made up both of pro-Europeans and of the sort of young, university-educated professionals that Renzi once considered his core supporters.

Virtually zero growth, unemployment stuck at 11.7% and a poor record on reforms of the sort that had a chance of making a difference in the short term: that is Renzi’s failure. He put too much of his political capital and energy into constitutional reform and too little into bringing dynamism back into the Italian economy.

Given a stronger position in the Chamber of Deputies after a general election, and with the blocking powers of the Senate removed, he could have moved on to more significant reforms had he won the referendum. But he failed to convince voters to trust him to do that.

So the new task is now clear: to convince the millions who voted against him that saving and reforming Europe should be part of their agenda too.

Many of the Five Star Movement’s supporters are natural Europeans: the sort of young people who see Europe as their own cultural and economic space. The movement is dangerous just because of one policy position: its call for a referendum on membership of the euro, which may well be unconstitutional, but in any event would be enormously destabilizing to financial markets and Italy’s creaky banking system, regardless of the likely result.

All of us who care about Europe and the future of its nations need to work hard to persuade Five Star to drop its referendum proposal and to press for reform of the Eurozone instead.

That could be doable. Austria however is a less comforting prospect than it looks.

Before celebrating Alexander van der Bellen’s victory too cheerily, we need to remember that the far-right Freedom Party still won 46.7% of the votes.

This bodes very badly for the much more important parliamentary elections that Austria is due to hold by September 2018 but are widely expected to occur sooner.

Current opinion polling indicates that if the election were held now, the Freedom Party would stand a good chance of being the largest party and so even of choosing Austria’s new Chancellor, a far more powerful figure than the largely ceremonial president.

This is not to diminish the pleasure at Mr van der Bellen’s victory. But the argument still needs to be won. The tide of populism and xenophobia has not turned simply because Brexit and Trump were not followed by Austria.

The battle remains on.

Bill Emmott

Chairman, The Wake Up Foundation

Dec 5 2016

Photo by Alisa Anton

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