After votes in Austria and Italy: where is Europe heading?

Two crucial votes took place last Sunday (4 December) in Austria and Italy. In the presidential elections in Austria, the Green party leader Alexander van der Bellen won a decisive victory against his opponent from the far-right Freedom party, Norbert Hofer. In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost by a big margin in the referendum on a constitutional reform package.

The two votes were very different in character but have been seen as a test as to whether Europe is heading in the direction of populist, anti-immigration and Eurosceptic policies. After Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the American presidential elections there was reason to believe that the trend would continue in Europe with the continued rise of Eurosceptic parties.

This did not happen in Austria where even an MEP from the Freedom Party interpreted the result as “Beware of another Trump – don’t vote for Hofer.” The EU could draw a sigh of relief and was quick in congratulating Van der Bellen on his election as federal president of Austria. European Council president Donald Tusk sent a letter of congratulation stating hopefully:

“At a time when we are faced with many difficult challenges, the continued constructive contribution of Austria to finding common European solutions and keeping our European unity will remain essential.”

As regards the referendum in Italy there is no-one to congratulate but only to deplore that Matteo Renzi had to resign from his post as prime minister, plunging Italy into period of political instability and economic uncertainty with implications for the future of Eurozone.

Italy is struggling with a dysfunctional political system with two bloated and overpaid parliamentary houses – the chamber of deputies and the senate – which both have to agree on legislative decisions. According to the reform, the senate would have been reduced in number and lost it power to block decisions.

The long over-due constitutional reform, which already had been approved by simple majority of both the chamber and senate, was supposed to simplify the system and making Italy governable. But Renzi apparently lost because the constitutional reform was seen by the opposition as a transfer of powers from regional to central level.

Instead of a vote on constitutional reform – too complicated - the referendum became a vote on Renzi’s person and the social-economic situation in Italy, something which favored the anti-establishment parties in the country. After leading in the opinion polls, the yes-camp gradually lost support. Renzi may have hoped that the polls would be proven wrong, as happened in Britain and US, but lost his gamble.

However, from a democratic point of view the votes in the two EU member states differed positively from the presidential elections in the US. There voter registration is relatively low, resulting in a voter turnout, in terms of eligible voters, of approximately 58 % or less. In Austria the voter turnout was 74 % and in Italy 69 %.

The Brussels Times

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