Two important votes are taking place this Sunday, December 4th. Austria is holding its long-delayed presidential election between two candidates from non-traditional political parties, and, on the other side of the Alps, Italy is holding a referendum on far-reaching constitutional reform. These votes are generating interest far beyond Austrian and Italian borders, due to their potential repercussions across the European Union (EU). This article explains, in short, why these votes are so important, and in particular, why eurosceptics should care.
Italian Constitutional Referendum
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi came to office in 2014 with the intention of significantly reforming Italy’s political system. Nicknamed the “Bulldozer”, he oversaw the passing of important constitutional changes through parliament. This package of reforms includes, most notably, a drastic reduction in the number and power of senators, as well as a boost to whichever party wins the most votes in an election, significantly altering how governments are formed and how laws are passed. The final say, however, lies with the Italian people.
To underline how important these reforms are to Renzi, he raised the stakes by tying his premiership to the vote, claiming that “If the citizens vote no and want a decrepit system that does not work, I will not be the one to deal with other parties for a caretaker government.” Such a gamble likely works against him. After all, Italy never recovered from the Great Recession, seeing record rates of youth unemployment, a level of public debt second only to Greece in the EU, and the same heavy-handed fiscal policies prescribed by the EU and IMF for all beleaguered Mediterranean member states. As much as Renzi is a reformer, he represents the continuity of these prescriptions in a different form, rather than new ideas, and Italians are more open to alternatives than ever.
Should voters refuse Renzi’s reforms on Sunday, leading him to step down as prime minister, fresh elections will likely be held in 2017. This would pave the way for the grassroots, anti-establishment Five-Star Movement (M5S) to take power. Though not explicitly anti-EU, the M5S has proposed a number of eurosceptic measures, such as a referendum on keeping the common currency.
Austrian Presidential Election
Austria being a parliamentary republic, its President fills a largely ceremonial role. This election, however, has been unlike any other before it, garnering unprecedented international attention.
Firstly, the election already took place in May, and was subsequently annulled due to irregularities in the postal vote. Secondly, the two candidates qualifying for the election’s final round are not from traditional centre-right or centre-left parties. The choice facing Austrian voters is between pro-EU, pro-migrant independent candidate Alexander Van Der Bellen (backed by the Greens), and eurosceptic, identitarian candidate Norbert Hofer, of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ).
Unlike previous elections, the choice could not be starker. Van Der Bellen is a vocal supporter of maintaining open borders, and committing funds to the integration of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers who arrived in Austria over the past year. Conversely, Hofer holds a tough stance on immigration, and has pledged to call a referendum on EU membership “[i]f within the next year the [EU’s] course is towards more centralization”, or if Turkey were to join the bloc.
Both in the case of a Hofer victory in Austria, and of a “no” vote on constitutional reform in Italy, no victorious party is explicitly anti-EU. The FPÖ has certainly held strong words on aspects of European integration, but is not calling for an end to the union. Similarly, the broad-based “no” campaign in Italy represents a diverse coalition of socialists, regional identitarians, conservatives, and anti-establishment activists, many of whom believe in some form of European integration. Nevertheless, the consequences of a Hofer presidency, and a rejection of Renzi’s constitutional reforms are implicit rejections of EU prescriptions and objectives.
If Hofer wins on Sunday, Austria will resist further European integration, effectively challenging the notion of “ever-closer union” enshrined in EU law. Similarly, if a “no” vote in Italy triggers an election, a subsequent M5S victory would lead to a referendum on Italy’s place in the currency union. In either of these scenarios, no vote is held on dismantling institutions in Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg or Frankfurt. However, the project of European integration has always been one-way, and a member state seeking further control of its borders, for example, spells the end of borderless travel within the EU, just as a member state deciding to leave the Eurozone spells the end of the common currency.
More than anything, Sunday’s votes show that the seeds of change have already been sown in Austria and Italy. The remaining question is whether now is the time for these seeds to blossom.