A lot of people have asked me to share my insights into Sunday’s referendum on political reform in Italy and the implications of the Italians’ resounding “no” vote. (In case you’re not following the New York Times, check out this recent coverage of the fallout from this week’s vote, an overview of why it could prove to be a pivotal moment in Italy’s new future and the stability of the European Union and its currency.)
On my last visit to Italy, the first night I was in the country in early November, I was invited to a dinner party at the home of a successful hairdresser. The 8 or so guests (give or take a few that stopped by to say hello) were all progressive middle-aged professionals, people more or less my age and like me. Naturally, they grilled me not for dinner but on my thoughts about Donald Trump and could he possibly be elected president?
As in many Italian homes during dinner, the television was on full-blast throughout our repast. There was a lot of coverage of earthquake relief (central Italy has been struck by a series of major earthquakes this year and many ill-prepared hilltop towns there have been devastated by the powerful seismic activity). Art historian Salvatore Settis (whom I knew during my Scuola Normale and Getty days during grad school) was on, talking about his new book, If Venice Dies. And of course, there was coverage of the December referendum on constitutional overhaul.
When I shifted the conversation from Trump to the referendum, the table fell silent. Not one guest at the dinner party wanted to break the brio of the evening by unleashing polarizing, divisive thoughts and feelings on the subject. Amen. And so it was.
According to most accounts, youth unemployment in Italy continues to hover at 40 percent. When we complain about the lack of job opportunities for young people in the U.S., we often don’t realize that our outlook is much rosier than for nearly all of our European counterparts. And Italy, where economic recovery from the years of the financial crisis has yet to take hold, is facing challenging times ahead.
I work in and write about Italian wine, but my life in Italy brings me into contact with people there from all walks of life (thanks to the many years I lived, studied, and worked there). Among my peers, the only people I see who are thriving are those who have created their own small businesses. Most of the people I went to school with enjoy job security (mostly in publishing and marketing) but many are deeply disheartened by their inability to change their economic status or provide greater economic mobility for their children.
I even have a few friends who are postermen for Italian mammismo. The only difference is that, at 50 years old (like me), living with your mother is no longer cute.
The economic challenges of middle-class life in Italy have been weighing on my peers and counterparts for more than a decade (the seeds of the current status quo go back to the demise of the corrupt socialist coalition in the 1990s). This seemingly unsurmountable intractability was likely what prompted the silence that fell over the table when I asked my dinner companions to share their thoughts about the referendum. Better to embrace the brio of the moment than to bust open the fears and insecurities that brimmed beneath.
On Sunday night, after the results of the referendum were clear, a good friend of mine wrote the following on his Facebook. He’s a successful winemaker who also works in a political lobby for farmers and grape growers.
Listening to [Massmo] D’Alema laughing on the radio, saying that today was a great day, with the Elio e Le Storie Tese song “Land of Persimmons” in the background, makes me realize that we are definitively SCREWED [sic] as a nation.
Happy Monday to all the people who will continue to break their backs to make their businesses succeed, to all the people who are creating jobs as they try to show foreigners that we are something more than the “Picturesque Country” in [actor and comic] Enrico Montesano’s “English Lady” [skit].
I’ve embedded the videos of the song and the skit below. His mood, I believe, is representative of many successful middle-aged Italians who view the EU and constitutional reform as vital to Italy’s future.
The populist movements, on both the far right and far left in Italy, see the outcome of this week’s vote as an opening for their agenda (although a streamlining of the Italian parliament, which would have been set into motion had the result been “yes,” would have also opened political channels for Italy’s rising populist parties).
To understand the implications of the vote and its probable legacy, see this New York Times piece, “A New Wave of Popular Fury Could Hit Europe in 2017.” In it, Alissa Rubin writes:
“The political demise of Mr. Renzi, the Italian prime minister, and his reform agenda removes an unabashedly pro-European leader who had hoped to ignite economic growth by ending an era of crippling budget austerity. Instead, he may be remembered for creating an opening for politicians who are openly hostile to Europe and the euro.”
Renzi’s fall could very well usher in an era when Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement enters into the mainstream of Italian politics (again, see the Rubin’s piece for the Times). It’s probable that Grillo will call for a referendum on leaving the Eurozone (the first step in leaving the EU). If Italy, a founding member, were to leave the EU, it’s likely that the union would collapse.
It’s hard for me to believe there would be a moment in my lifetime, let alone my children’s lifetime, when the future of the EU could be in question. But then again, I never thought it possible that a populist candidate like Donald Trump could be delivered to the White House on a fundamentally bigoted platform.
The one thing that is certain about the results of Sunday’s vote in Italy is uncertainty. So many Italian wine bloggers love to quote the famous line from The Leopard: “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.” Scarcely do they know the portent of this utterance in the historical context in which it was first spoken and its deep-reaching relevance today.
In the wake of this week’s vote, maybe it’s more fitting to say: everything needs to stay the same so everything can change.