Can Europe Make It?

On the Italian constitutional referendum: a last appeal for a NO vote

Now more than ever, in order to fight against the rising tide of nationalist populism, we need to safeguard our democratic constitutions in a more democratic European Union.

Sarah Stefanutti
3 December 2016

Beppe Grillo in Trieste, 2013. Flickr/Triesteprima It. Some tights reserved. On the eve of the Italian Referendum for the proposed reform of its Constitution, I feel the urge to write this last appeal to convince my many undecided fellow Italian citizens: 

For the good of both Italy and the European Union, I urge you not to do any political bargaining on your constitution but rather to make a decision based on the merit of the actual constitutional reform and whether you agree or disagree with it. 

It would be wrong to give a Yes vote that infringes upon your beliefs in exchange for a supposed Italian and even European short term political stability. Indeed, unlike Mr Renzi’s strategy of personalizing this vote by turning the referendum campaign into an endorsement of his unelected government, you should remember to distinguish between Mr Renzi’s political fate and the Constitutional reforms. It is the latter you have to decide upon, as constitutional change does and should go beyond normal party politics and its short-sighted calculations.

And if you believe, as I and many fellow citizens do, that this constitutional reform is a rather messy affair (literally, it is not even spelt out clearly and difficult to decipher) and, most importantly, that it infringes upon some of the democratic achievements of our country (concentrating power, among other things, by making the senate no longer directly elected by the citizens and by taking some of the regional competences back to the level of the central state), then do not let yourself be blackmailed by the fearmongers, alias those who will tell you:

“A No vote will result in financial Armageddon”, “a No vote will bring political instability and lead to just another illegitimate technocratic government”, “a No vote will bring to power Mr Grillo and the populists”, “A No vote will bring us outside the Eurozone and threaten the stability of Europe”.

If you believe that these constitutional reforms are flawed, do not be afraid to vote NO.

As a passionate European federalist, I feel a particular urge to appeal to those EU supporters that argue that they would vote for a Yes to the constitutional reforms because “Europe asks us to give a Yes vote”, even though they would do it half heartedly.  To those of you, I say that by voting out of fear rather than principle, not only are you falling into the Yes-campaign- fear-trap, but also possibly contributing to a non-democratic idea of Europe.

For sure, as we live in a highly interconnected world, it is right to question the impact of the Italian Referendum vote on the European Union and it is also legitimate to see what our neighbours in our European Union common home think about our Referendum. But in the last resort the final choice should remain ours.

Unfortunately, most of the international press is aligned with the EU establishment in placing the potential victory of a No vote on a par with both the Brexit and Trump victories, conflating the Italian Referendum into larger global trends such as the advance of populist forces in western democracies. The latter position is clearly articulated by Mr Wolfgang Münchau of the Financial Times, but it is also the underlying reason why Mr Juncker, Mr Schäuble and Mrs Merkel and other members of the EU establishment all endorse a Yes vote. The Economist is among a very few European liberal magazines that actually discusses the constitutional reform itself and advocates a No vote, making the argument that the main risk is that Mr Grillo, leader of the populist Five Star Movement, will be the beneficiary of Mr Renzi’s proposed reform: “The spectre of Mr Grillo as prime minister” says The Economist “elected by a minority and cemented into office by Mr Renzi’s reforms, is one many Italians  – and much of Europe – will find troubling” (26th November 2016).

However, as Mr Zagrebelsky, a professor and main public figure of the No vote coalition, puts it, the crucial question is: what Europe should we answer to? Voting for a less democratic constitution because it is demanded of us by a less and less democratic Europe would only be an offence against democratic principles.

And many of us Italian-Europhiles do not wish at all to subjugate ourselves to a technocratic EU that endorses worse constitutions in return for neoliberal reforms.

This does not mean siding with nationalists and populists against the European Union, but rather becoming critical citizens who consider and believe that a different and more democratic Europe is possible. To imagine a more just Europe is far from wishful thinking, but rather an exercise in political imagination that empowers us as European citizens in the spirit of the founding fathers of the European project.

Now more than ever, in order to fight against the rising tide of nationalist populism, we need to safeguard our democratic constitutions in a more democratic European Union. Let us not watch helplessly at the gradual transformation of the EU into some sort of dystopian technocracy at the expense of the national democracies. Let us then begin by defending the democratic principles of our national constitutions, and as Italian Europhiles make a choice out of principle and not out of fear, and give our vote for the No side.

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