In April the Italian Parliament has passed a package of constitutional reforms. They were designed to improve the efficiency and stability of the Italian state, and reduce the ability of the Italian Senate to bring the government down.
Although the package passed, it did not get the required 66% majority in both Houses to come into immediate effect.
The only way the package can come into effect now, is if it is approved by the Italian people in a referendum.
The Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, decided that this referendum will take place this autumn, and he has gone further and said that, unless the people approve the proposals, he will resign.
David Cameron’s recent failed referendum gamble makes this look now to be a more risky decision than when it was taken.
The proposed constitutional reforms include
- reducing the size of the Senate
- reducing the power of the Senate both to block legislation that has been passed by the Chamber of Deputies, and to bring down the government
- reducing the power of Italian regional governments
Major reforms of the Italian state are urgent because the debt of the Italian state is 130% of GDP, and the state has to find resources for an ageing population, and influx of refugees, and bank rescue. The Senate has proved to be an obstacle to some reforms.
Reforms are needed to increase the overall productivity of the Italian economy. This requires
- a simplification of the tax code,
- less taxation of work and more on property,
- simpler public administration and
- a simpler and more efficient courts system.
State owned enterprises also need to face more competition, as do some professions and retailers.
Before it joined the euro, Italy was able to devalue its way out of short term problems, as the UK is doing now. But devaluation enabled it to avoid making big and difficult reforms.
Since it joined the euro, Italy has reformed its previously unviable public pension system, a task Ireland and the UK have yet even to discuss seriously. So Italy’s underlying ability to make big reforms should not be underestimated.
The polls on how Italians will vote in the referendum are very volatile.
The proportion in the “Don’t Know” category ranged from 19% to 42% in the two most recent polls.
Furthermore Prime Minister Renzi’s party lost ground in recent city elections, including in Rome.
Renzi’s main opponents are the “ 5 Star” Movement, who make their policies, and select their candidates, by polls over the internet. They reject the idea of career politicians and prefer politicians to be amateurs, who do the work on a short term basis. This sentiment is similar to the rejection of the opinion of “experts” and “elites” in the recent UK Referendum.
The trouble with amateur politicians is that, while they may have good ideas, they may lack the necessary technical ability, and staying power, to see their ideas through to full and effective implementation.
Italy is the 8th largest economy in the world. It has an excellent quality of life, and a great reputation.
Unfortunately its state system does not work well and there is not enough political consensus to put things right. This is not a weakness that Italy can afford. It needs a strong and effective state. A rise in the price of fuel, or in international interest rates, could cause a big crisis for Italy, unless it has a state that is capable of making and fully implementing difficult decisions.
That is why Prime Minister Renzi’s referendum is so important for Italy, and for Europe.