Sunday was a rollercoaster for those interested in EU politics; one moment you are rejoicing the victory of a green liberal over nationalist extreme-right in Austria, the next you’re down in the dumps over the crushing defeat of centre-left politics by populism in Italy, thinking “another one bites the dust”. But is that really the case? Is Matteo Renzi, and with him Italy, indeed the next domino to fall in a populist wave across the West?
The answer really cannot be anything other than ‘no’.
The Italian referendum over constitutional reform was simply too complex to boil the defeat down to populism; a key indicator is the support of former technocratic Prime Minister Mario Monti for the ‘no’ camp, campaigning against Renzi. Non-Italian news media simplified the battle in Italy to a show of force between Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S), largely ignoring the content of the proposed reforms and the wide variety of politicians and movements campaigning against the referendum.
It is now still too early after the results to tell what will happen next; Renzi has resigned and indicated that he does not want to return to government, but it is unclear as of yet if Italy is heading for elections as early as spring 2017, if President Sergio Mattarella will aim for a post-Renzi technocratic government to govern the country until the scheduled elections in early 2018 or if there will be some jack-in-the-box surprise move.
For the European Union both an early election and a technocratic government are a challenge. Elections in early 2017 would open the door for Grillo’s populist M5S in a year that is already volatile with elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands. This has the potential to shake up politics in the heart of the EU, with four of the six co-founders having elections, the UK triggering Article 50 and Spain having a potentially volatile minority government. However, a technocratic government would also prove a challenge as it would be unable to make major politically sensitive decisions at a time when there are big developments in the EU on Brexit, EU defence strategy and continuing migration issues.
All in all it is too easy to claim that Italy has been the next domino to fall in the West. However, you would be blind to ignore the challenges the result brings and the momentum it adds for election year 2017.