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Renzi’s New Constitution: Really the Solution to Italy’s Troubles?

The effects of Renzi’s reforms are problematic. They lead to more centralization — and don’t address the country’s real problems.

September 28, 2016

The effects of Renzi's reforms are problematic. They lead to more centralization -- and don't address the country's real problems.

The biggest gamble of Matteo Renzi’s political career will take place in a little over two months from now. The vote on his proposed national referendum on revising Italy’s constitution will happen on December 4.

Renzi, born in 1975, became the youngest prime minister in the history of the Italian Republic in 2014.

Fast in a slow-moving Italy

He has since shown the world the image of a young, energetic, assertive reformer. That is to be welcomed in a country that is generally considered stubbornly resistant to “modernization.”

He and his cabinet have certainly been effective in imposing their reform agenda. In that effort, they were helped by a very weak, delegitimized parliament.

Disoriented politicians

The legislature was in a confused state following the collapse of Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right leadership. The country itself struggles with a profound identity crisis, which manifests itself in the “Five Star” populist movement.

Meanwhile, the left was paralyzed because it believes it has no alternative to subjecting itself to what it sees as EU-imposed austerity in the eurozone.

Feeling somewhat lost in the turbulent political sea, one member in three of Italy’s two-chamber Parliament has changed political affiliation within the last three years. Some of them more than once!

This turbulence and extreme flexibility of party “affiliation” present in the legislature can indeed be seen as a new episode of political “trasformismo,” a well-known trait in Italian political history.

Operating resolutely

Unperturbed, the Renzi cabinet has forced a long series of controversial decrees through parliament by means of repeated votes of confidence.

These decrees did contain positive ideas:

  • Hiring more teachers in state schools (“to improve public schools”)
  • Job contracts with average longer durations (the new “Jobs Act”)
  • More money for lower-income workers (“80 Euro more per month, per person”)
  • A reduction of the property tax on homeowners (“no home tax”)
  • “Getting things moving” (unblocking Italy’s convoluted bureaucracy, etc).

In the present parliament, even with the existing laborious rules, on average it has taken only a few weeks in each case to get Renzi’s proposals passed into law. This is certainly quite swift.

Did Renzi score an own goal?

Paradoxically, Renzi has demonstrated that Italy’s political system can work much better than is commonly thought. Evidently, Italy’s problem is not the “speed” of parliamentary action.

Rather, the problem is the real-life effects of Renzi’s legislation. They are problematic — and have sometimes resulted in serious backlash — because they weren’t well thought-out. This isn’t solely a function of the deliberate intention to rush legislation in order to create a sense of action.

State schools are being provided with new personnel but not the required funding and services. The procedures for firing people are easier, but not fairer. And hundreds of thousands of people had to give back the “80 Euro” bonus because they were not poor enough to have a right to it.

Finally, only the very rich were really favored by the reduction of property taxes. Meanwhile, many local public services once financed by the property tax are deteriorating.

It has been said many times the Renzi cabinet has tried to be fast in a slow Italy. There is a price to be paid for that.

Lack of credible projects

To his credit, Renzi has tried to cut the Gordian knot of hubristic public works that have long been discussed, like the new Nuclear Waste National Deposit, or the bridge over the Straits of Messina.

But if so many public works in Italy have been blocked for decades, it is not for lack of money or political will.

What Italy has lacked are credible projects, environmental expertise and a shared vision of what the diverse territories of the Italian peninsula really need.

No shared vision

Forcing “prestige” projects through in a country with a complex heritage like Italy will make finding serious, enduring technical solutions supported by the people even more challenging.

It is telling that, in Renzi’s home city of Florence, one of the most important blocked public works — a high-speed, high-capacity railway tunnel supposed to be connected with the building of a new ambitious railway station designed by star architect Norman Foster was abandoned in a dramatic turnaround.

Renzi’s close aides — like the minister of infrastructure and transport, Graziano Delrio, national railways CEO, Mauro Moretti and the Mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella — have admitted that building a tunnel under Florence was proving expensive beyond any available budget and was ultimately useless.

Disturbing internal affairs

Of course, this Florentine Waterloo has not helped to consolidate Renzi’s credibility in “unblocking” Italy. In the meantime, Italy’s justice system is stuck in its sluggishness. Prison conditions, in a country which has had a great humanistic tradition from Cesare Beccaria to Marco Pannella, are still alarming.

Bureaucracy is not reducing the burden it imposes on artisans, small-to-medium-sized enterprises, as well as professionals. Poor immigrants and refugees are warehoused in structures that are as embarrassingly costly as they are infamous.

On the other hand, gifted university graduates are emigrating at a troubling rate. The banking system is not stabilizing. To no one’s surprise, the economy is not recovering as was hoped at the beginning of 2016 – not only in Italy, it must be said.

The key problems remain

Matteo Renzi, for all his rhetoric and sense of action, has not been able to resolve Italy’s historical contradictions. As a result, the eurozone peripheries continue to suffer, while the eurozone center, especially the richest countries like Germany, are doing better.

In his effort to succeed rhetorically, if not in reality, Renzi is helped by Italy’s state-owned and state-financed oligarchic media system. Some observers are saying that Renzi’s grip on public television may even be stronger than Berlusconi’s used to be.

With a few apparent merits but many negative features, Renzi resembles a traditional Italian “Leopard” more than he does a reformer — except in one matter, the reform of the constitution.

Constitutional reform — or a substitute constitution?

The Renzi cabinet has succeeded in getting approval from a weak and divided parliament, with a narrow majority, for a constitutional reform.

He was aided by Senator Denis Verdini, once Berlusconi’s “main executive” and now converted to support the new young leader. A referendum on this constitutional project will be held on December 4.

The reform modifies 47 of the 139 articles of the Italian constitution. Those who are skeptical pointedly ask: Is the referendum about a reform of the constitution or a substitute constitution? Moreover, people are only allowed to say “Yes” or “No” to the entire project.

Imagine another Berlusconi, using Renzi’s revised constitution

Under Renzi’s proposal, the present bicameral parliamentary system is replaced by the concentration of all power within the government, elected by the majority of the House of Representatives (316 of 630). A small Senate of 100 members, formed by regional and local representatives, is maintained but is equipped only with very marginal powers.

The selection process of the President of the Republic and of other guarantor institutions is put within the range of the cabinet’s control.

Unfortunately, these proposed constitutional provisions make Italy more like Turkey than like Germany. Under Renzi’s proposal, there are next to no safeguards that would keep a strong party led by a strong man from, in very few years, leading the Italian Republic to the threshold of authoritarianism.

Imagine what the emergence of another Berlusconi (the current “edition” is too old in all likelihood) could accomplish, using the Renzi script as cannon fodder to satisfy his lust for power.

Not a solution to Italy’s problems

Last but not least, in a country full of traditional autonomies and diversity, a majority in the House of Representatives is empowered to approve special laws that could cancel any local and territorial autonomy (see new articles 117.4 and 70.4).

Concentration of power without sufficient checks and balances is the hallmark of Renzi’s reform. Indeed, this appears to have been the key goal of Matteo Renzi and his aides from the beginning.

Fortunately, opinion polls bode ill for Renzi’s new constitution. As information circulates on social media and the actual texts of the reform are made available, the number of people from a bipartisan, diverse spectrum who are beginning to campaign against it is growing.

As a result, Renzi has recently moderated the tone of his propaganda for the new constitution. It is not, he clarified, a referendum on his cabinet, but only on the constitutional reform package.

It remains to be seen whether the true sovereigns of Italy — the voters — will see things Renzi’s way.

What is without doubt, however, is that resorting to centralism and the concentration of power can hardly be considered the solution to Italy’s problems. On the contrary, they may even add further dramatic dysfunction to Italy’s many troubles.


Unfortunately, Italy's new proposed constitutional provisions make it look more like Turkey than Germany.

Under Renzi's proposal, there are no safeguards that would keep a strong leader from becoming authoritarian.

Using the Renzi “reform” script as cannon fodder, imagine what the emergence of another Berlusconi could do?

Resorting to centralism and the concentration of power is not the solution to Italy’s problems.

Italy lacks a shared vision of what the country really needs.

The Renzi cabinet has forced a series of controversial decrees by means of repeated votes of confidence.