Italy is in the process of shaking Europe. A long-drawn political and economic crisis has come to a head. There is no hiding the fact that Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, at the age of 39 the youngest man ever to hold that office, has misjudged his country and brought about his own downfall in an almost Shakespearean drama.
Reform, he said, was the key to a successful future. Italians were to vote in a referendum for constitutional changes that would empower the prime minister and weaken governmental checks and balances — the whole issue expressed in semi-technical language comically close to parody. Renzi’s confidence that he would surely obtain the requisite “Yes” came across as arrogance: David Cameron had given the same impression over the Brexit referendum. Carried away, Renzi promised to resign in the event that he lost the referendum. The more he identified himself as the moving spirit and beneficiary of the reforms that he would undertake, the more the voters saw him as authoritarian, reminding them unhappily of Benito Mussolini. Polls were misleading. The “No” vote won handily, so in effect Renzi had thrown himself out of office. Within minutes of the announcement of the result, the euro had lost some 20 percent of its value. Throughout the European Union, the media immediately swung from pretended wisdom to outright consternation.
Local factors may help explain the upset. Renzi’s experience was limited; previously he had been mayor of Florence and was not even a member of parliament when he became prime minister. Furthermore, he had alienated several leaders of his center-left Democratic Party. The No vote gathered around a right-wing party known as the Five Star Movement, an opposition body started only six years ago and as unusual as any. It is something of a one-man show under Giuseppe Grillo, known familiarly as Beppe. A stand-up comedian in the first part of his career, Grillo is a bearded bohemian who in the interests of free speech says exactly what he thinks, sometimes in the crudest language and utterly indifferent to political correctness.
Grillo speaks for the majority that is alarmed by the apparently unstoppable flow all along the Italian coastline of legal and illegal migrants from the Muslim world. The popular view holds Germany responsible for exploiting Italy economically, leading to unemployment as high as 30 percent in the case of young adults. The referendum he would like to set up would ask the question most crucial to the future, whether Italy really needs to be in the euro zone. The answer might very well be another resounding No.