Italy Update: Rome, the Five Star Movement and the Referendum

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By Lauren Cater and Cristian Tracci

The Guarini Institute for Public Affairs welcomed seven members of the foreign press for a roundtable discussion on October 4. Professor Federigo Argentieri moderated the conversation and opened by clarifying that the event was not in place to support the Five Star Movement, the mayor of Rome, or the referendum, but rather to analyze the variety of political issues that are unfolding in real time.

Veteran journalist and president of Rome’s Foreign Press Association, Tobias Piller of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung began by providing a broader outlook on Italy’s problems. Piller criticized the Italian government for failing to invest in big projects and its distribution of power between regional and central governments, which also negatively affects investments. Piller finished his discussion by remarking on the growth of the Five Star Movement, which he attributed to long-term dissatisfaction and inaction.

Crispian Balmer, Reuters

Crispian Balmer, Reuters

Next to speak was Crispian Balmer of Reuters. Balmer, like Piller, remarked on Italy’s current state. On Rome specifically, Balmer said, “This is a G7 capital city and at times it doesn’t look like it.” He also looked back on when current Prime Minister Matteo Renzi took power in 2015, recalling a “new energy” in Italy, despite a lingering “air of depression.” Balmer discussed the upcoming referendum and said, “Renzi has committed an atrocious thing by tying his political future to the reform… He should have said ‘I’ll resign if you vote yes.’” He also criticized Rome’s Virginia Raggi’s failure to compose a formal cabinet, giving her credit only for her rejection of Rome’s ambitious Olympic bid. Regarding the 5 Star Movement, Balmer said that the group, which he refused to label ‘populist’ for fear that it has become a derogatory term, is a “complete break from the past.”

Gaia Pianigiani, New York Times

Gaia Pianigiani, New York Times

Gaia Pianigiani, of the New York Times, pointed out that while the 5 Star Movement’s chances of failure are high, it still has great potential, although she believes the group is finding it much harder to follow through with the promises they made during their campaign. She claimed that not even Renzi is exempt from difficulty, adding, “[He] thought that rushing the referendum would be the best thing… Now he has a problem that he did not foresee.” Pianigiani also pointed out that the December 4 referendum falls on the same day that Austria has its own referendum.“People will have to ask if the European Union is able to reform itself. And the people will answer.”

Alvise Armellini, Deutsche Presse Agentur

Alvise Armellini, Deutsche Presse Agentur

Alvise Armellini, of Deutsche Presse Agentur, also spoke on the upcoming referendum, saying, “it is impossible to stress how difficult it is to get things done with Italy’s system.” Responding to criticism on Renzi’s expedited referendum, Armellini said that, “… speeding things up is needed. Whether the referendum is the right way or a greater mess is an open question.” He also spoke about Mayor Raggi, calling her a puzzle, but attributed a portion of the negative publicity she receives to sexism. Nevertheless, he said that Raggi has been unable to make hard decisions and continues to idealize proposed solutions, then fails to carry them out.

Frances D’Emilio of the Associated Press echoed similar sentiments, both defending and criticizing Raggi. D’Emilio acknowledged that Raggi has taken on an incredibly difficult job: “[Raggi] inherited the mess that someone inherited, that someone inherited… It’s the story of Rome.” D’Emilio also said that it is still too early to tell how the 5 Star Movement will do in the long run. But she added that Raggi’s term as mayor is showing what the movement “is capable and not capable of doing.” One of D’Emilio’s broader criticisms of the 5 Star Movement is that it is not always characterized by the transparency that it prides itself on. She pointed out, for example, that the movement initially promised to stream meetings online, but now instead make closed-door decisions.

The discussion then turned again to focus on Renzi and the upcoming referendum. Wall Street Journal correspondent, Giada Zampano recollected the odd moment when the Vatican and Italy went without leaders at the same time in 2013, calling it a moment of anarchy. This became the backdrop for an up-and-coming Renzi, whom she interviewed while he was still competing with Pierluigi Bersani for the Democratic Party leadership. “He was an ambitious young politician. People were struck by his confidence. He was convinced that he would become the next Prime Minister,” said Zampano. On Renzi and the referendum, Zampano said that he has made a big mistake: “This is the mother of all reforms, the most important, but it’s never been perceived as such by Italians.” Zampano said that she believes Italians are more concerned about the economy and that the referendum vote has become an assessment of the government. “People hoped that Renzi could bring back growth and prosperity, but it hasn’t happened. This is what people will be thinking about on December 4,” said Zampano.

The last speaker was James Politi of the Financial Times, who discussed the 5 Star Movement candidly, calling the group an “angry protest movement by Italians left behind by globalization and crisis.” Politi added though, that supporters of the movement are more discouraged than angry. He said that the same applies to the December 4 referendum, which will not be “an angry anti-EU vote, typical of populist movements elsewhere.” Politi also touched on 5 Star Movement demographics, saying that the movement represents diverse constituents – the poor, the unemployed, but also self-made middle class professionals. In terms of income though, “they’re not the worst off”. Politi said that youth have been “captured” by the 5 Star Movement, which “clashes with Renzi’s energy to bring Italy into the modern digital era.” Tying the referendum and 5 Star Movement together, Politi said, “Here’s a little secret: the 5 Star Movement might benefit hugely from the yes victory. In 2018, the movement would run against the Democratic Party in that case.”