Florentines should know that it is dangerous to be unprepared. Almost exactly fifty years ago, in November 1966, the people of this ancient city watched helplessly as the winter rains fell and the river Arno grew in height and rage. The disaster which followed – known here simply as l’alluvione, or the flood – left scars on this city which you can still see today.
The Arno is a tempestuous force and has flooded Florence more than fifty times. Yet too much bureaucracy and too little money mean the city has little flood protection, and remains vulnerable to the Arno’s whim and impulse. As the waters rose in November 1966, the government was slow to respond – perhaps in disbelief at the fury of the flow. So when the torrent peaked and the river burst its banks, thousands of tons of water, sludge, grit and grime tore through the narrow streets. The mark of its destruction can still be seen on the city’s walls.
The Florentine Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi, has woefully underestimated the fury of the Italian people. Tomorrow, Italians will go to the polls to pass judgement on what appear to be fairly dry constitutional reforms. But since Renzi staked his premiership on the result, the decision has become one of international significance. The referendum has become the latest marker of the rise of populism, and headlines around the world are busily predicting a No vote will mean the end of the European Union and even liberal democracy itself.
So what is the vote about? Technically it’s about changing Italy’s political institutions. At the moment there are two chambers in the Italian parliament, both of which have directly elected members and identical powers. Both have to agree on any legislation before it passes and, as a result, decision making can be frustratingly slow. If approved, the reforms would reduce the power of the Senate and allow laws to be passed by the Chamber of Deputies alone. Meanwhile, the Senate, dramatically reduced in number and selected by regional assemblies rather than directly elected, would only have a say on the really big issues.
Supporters of the reforms argue they will streamline the country’s institutions and make government more effective. But critics say the reforms are not enough and fear that the changes could give too much power to the government.
In a way, none of this matters. Whilst on paper it’s a Yes/No question about reforms to Italy’s political institutions, in practice, the referendum has become a de facto confidence vote on Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. In 2014 the so-called ‘Demolition Man’ swept to power under an anti-establishment banner, but in the years since he has failed to fulfill his promise to shake Italy’s institutions into action. So despite his anti-establishment origins, Renzi has been tarred by the brush of power and has come to symbolize the status quo. And if we’ve learned anything in recent months, that’s a dangerous place to be.
Italians are hungry for change and, as elsewhere in Europe, there’s a populist opposition waiting in the wings. For Cinquestelle, otherwise known as the Five Star Movement, Renzi’s reforms don’t go far enough. Unemployment remains disastrously high, especially among the young. And despite the fact that the economy grew for the first time in four years under Renzi’s leadership, it was so negligible most people didn’t notice. Many Italians blame Europe for their country’s fragile condition and, for some, Renzi’s reform of the Senate seems insignificant. This, in part, is why the world is so interested. The Yes/No question about constitutional reform has become about the future of Italy in Europe.
If Italians vote No, and Renzi resigns as promised, the way is cleared for a populist victory in the elections that must follow. Cinquestelle, with their anti-elite, anti-Europe message, is likely to do well despite the movement’s lack of experience. After all, don’t forget that just a few weeks ago a demagogue with no experience of public office was elected as the next President of the United States. A lack of experience can, it seems, be interpreted as a strength.
So a No vote in this Sunday’s referendum will be seen as the latest in a wave of anti-establishment victories. In Italy, as elsewhere in Europe, a breathless mistrust and fear for the future have made citizens look for an anti-political alternative. ‘An era is going up in flames,’ said Beppe Grillo, as the news of Trump’s success unfolded. ‘It’s the risk-takers, the stubborn, the barbarians who will carry the world forward. We will end up in government, and they will be asking, ‘How did they do it?’’
Let’s be clear: this is not Brexit, and this is not Trump. You will not wake up on Monday morning to a topsy-turvy world. But for Italy, this is actually just as dangerous. For if one thing’s certain, it’s that nothing is. Will the Demolition Man be felled by a crisis of his own creation? Possibly. But even if he wins this weekend, Renzi will struggle to quell Italians’ fears about the future before the next election.
In truth, this weekend’s referendum may decide very little. ‘We don’t know what the result will be,’ said Camilla, a local Florentine. ‘On Facebook, half my friends are for Yes and half are for No. Those who want Yes think the answer will be No and those who want No think the answer will be Yes.’ That uncertainty is unlikely to disappear, no matter who claims victory in Sunday’s vote. In Italy, as elsewhere, the outpouring of popular anger has taken the establishment by surprise. The tide of anti-Europe, anti-elite populism shows no signs of turning. Europe is fragile; Italy even more so. And it keeps on raining, the levee’s going to break.