By Bhaswati Mukherjee
The decisive rejection last week in the referendum for reform by 41-year-old Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has once again plunged Italy and the European Union into a crisis.
It underlined the inherent danger in calling for popular endorsement through referendum of any agenda for political or economic change. This was clear after Brexit in UK and now in Italy. Such strategic blunders unfortutely cannot be reversed. They often result in an abrupt end of the political careers of the respective Prime Ministers who gambled and lost.
Political alysts have noted that opposition to the Italian proposals came from the same broad coalition that ensured victory for Brexit: anti-establishment sentiments, anger at globalisation, the migrant issue and open borders, and increased scepticism on the wisdom of a Europe without frontiers. A broadly similar coalition ensured the victory of Dold Trump. The problem is how to turn the tide before it is too late.
In Italy’s case, the result of the vote primarily benefited right-wing parties such as the Five Star Movement which supports a referendum to determine whether Italy should give up the euro. The popular mood in the third-largest European economy seems to be to go it alone rather than with Europe.
It was small comfort to the European liberal left wing and socialist parties that a few hours earlier, Austrian voters, faced with a stark choice, selected as their Head of State Alexander Van der Bellen of the Green Party rather than Norbert Hofer of the far right Freedom Party which had been established by the zis.
Political developments across Europe are worrisome. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, once riding high in the polls, seems increasingly vulnerable in elections scheduled for 2017. In France, for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, an incumbent President, Francois Hollande, is not seeking a second term. It represents a candid acknowledgement by him that he is acutely aware of the inherent danger of the candidature of an unpopular President, handicapped by incumbency, standing for an election which could divide the liberal, left-wing vote and ensure the victory of Marine Le Pen. The French political scerio is complex, with the far right tiol Front leader calling for a French referendum on European Union membership shortly after Brexit. While it seems unlikely that Frexit will happen since France, unlike the UK, has always been firmly anchored in Europe and sees EU membership as a way of maintaining its great power status, the result of the French presidential election in 2017 seems disturbingly uncertain. The first round of the vote will be held on April 23. The fil outcome will be decided in a run-off election on May 7.
While the centre-right former Prime Minister Francois Fillon is being projected by the media as the favourite, having surprisingly humbled former Prime Minister Alan Juppé and former President Nicholas Sarkozy in the primaries, there are many imponderables which still remain. The Socialist Party is divided; Manuel Valls has stood down as Prime Minister in order to put himself forward as the Socialist Party candidate for the presidential race. The Socialist Party will hold its presidential primary in January. One imponderable whose resolution could impact the outcome is how the Socialists would vote in a second round presidential election with a runoff between Fillon and Le Pen. Ultimately, the outcome of this election is also a litmus test for the continuing relevance of European liberal democratic politics.
There are ominous indications that Europe has already moved to the ideological right, threatening the integrity and future of the EU itself. If the founders of the EU and its liberal ideals — Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France — also move to the far right in 2017, it could sound the death knell for the Schengen regime and of the cherished ideals of European integration and of the European Union itself. (ians)
(Bhaswati Mukherjee is a former Ambassador to the Netherlands and a former Ambassador to Unesco based in Paris.)