October 31, 2016
Will the quake help Renzi?
Remember the 2002 elections in Germany? The situation in Italy today may have some parallels. Back in July of 2002, chancellor Gerhard Schröder was trailing his opponent - Edmund Stoiber, then CSU chief - by some 10pp. During August, parts of eastern Germany suffered one of the worst floods in living memory. Schröder travelled immediately to the affected areas, put on his wellies, and co-ordinated the rescue efforts on the ground. Stoiber wasn't seen for days, and when he finally arrived, he looked as though as he didn't belong there. The floods were widely credited for securing Schröder's improbable victory in the subsequent elections. Events intruded. They are also now intruding in the US.
Italy's serial earthquakes could turn out to be for Matteo Renzi what the floods were for Schröder. As the head of the government, Renzi's in the position to take the initiative. He, and no opposition leader, can promise funds for reconstruction. And he can defy the EU's budget rules. His rhetoric is sharp. He said yesterday that Italy would spend whatever it takes to construct the country after earthquakes in various parts of central Italy over the weekend. The quakes destroyed and damage part of Italy's cultural and national identity, Renzi said, and he would not spare a cent to reconstruct everything. And he added, for good measure, that he had no respect for any technocratic rules that question the efforts to restore the country's national heritage.
Nobody in the EU had even said anything - and even the European Commission, we would presume, would accept the earthquakes as an exceptional circumstance. What we assume is happening is that Renzi is now more ready than ever to defy EU rules as he gets closer to the referendum, and then again as he approaches the elections, which have to be held before the spring of 2018. All opposition leaders have taken anti-EU positions. That is reflected in their poll rating. If and when Renzi eurosceptic, he will benefit at their expense.
We also noted a somewhat counter-intuitive commentary by Dominique Moisi in Les Echo, who argues that an Italian No in the referendum, in the same year as the Brexit vote, would put an end to the referendum as a democratic instrument and would turn the whole of Europe more inward-looking. But he writes that this is a risk worth taking. Reform requires that political leaders take personal risks (which is of course what Gerhard Schröder did).