European Dirigisme Continues to Unravel

Italy's Beppe Grillo, head of the Italian Five-Star Movement in 2012

Italy’s Beppe Grillo, head of the Italian Five-Star Movement in  2012
Wikimedia Commons / Niccolò Caranti

Last Sunday’s Italian constitutional referendum marks yet another step in the slow unraveling of the European Union and of European dirigisme. Following the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote to leave the EU last June 23, Italy’s vote against proposed legislative reforms is yet another popular protest against intrusive state management of society.

The Meaning of Italy’s Referendum

What was at stake in Italy’s referendum was a constitutional amendment proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party (PD). The point of Renzi’s reforms was to re-centralize power in the national government, and to make it much easier for the national government to push through legislation. Dating back to 1948, the current constitution’s construction was in part a reaction to Benito Mussolini’s wartime dictatorship. As a brake

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in 2015

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in 2015
Wikimedia Commons /

against possible political malfeasance, the two houses of the Italian parliament — the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies — were set up, much like the U.S. Congress, to be able to easily check each other or the prime minister. This meant legislative bills could be frozen in the same kind of legislative grid-lock as we have experienced in the United States over the past six years or so.

To counter this grid-lock, Renzi and his colleagues proposed to strip the Senate of many of its powers, reducing the number of Senators from 315 to 100. Of those senators, five would have been appointed by the prime minister and 95 by regional bodies. That is, none of the senators would be elected by the people, but would owe their offices to the ruling elite. In addition, many of the decision-making powers of the regional governments would have been transferred to the central government.  All in all, these constitutional changes would have drastically increased the power of the ruling elites, with a consequential decrease in the political power of the people.

In the face of such a huge power grab, the Italian people gave a resounding “no”, as evidenced in the map below, showing the voting results by province. The darker the red coloring of a province, the more overwhelming the no vote was.

2016 Italian constitutional referendum results by province     Wikimedia Commons / Loudo89

Much as in the British Brexit vote and in the U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump, the ruling elites appear not to be greatly trusted by the Italian electorate. As a result of the referendum’s rejection, Prime Minister Renzi has felt it necessary to resign to make way for new elections. What is likely to replace Renzi and his PD party? There are two political forces, the eurosceptic Lega Nord, often called the Northern League in English-Language media, and the Five-Star Movement (M5S), led by popular comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo. Indeed, there is a very real possibility the Northern League and M5S could gain power together in an alliance. Both parties are anti-establishment and eurosceptic, favoring both a withdrawal from the Euro and from the EU. Could such an alliance pull Italy out of the EU? Recent polls show such an effort would be an uphill-climb. A pan-European survey, released last June just before the Brexit vote by the Pew Research Center, showed 39 percent of Italians viewed the EU unfavorably, with 58 percent favorable. Nevertheless, opinions could quickly shift as Italy’s economic condition deteriorates.

Other Right-Wing Stirrings in Europe

Almost simultaneously with the Italian referendum, Norbert Hofer, a leader of the right-of-center Austrian Freedom Party  (FPÖ) lost the election for Austria’s presidency. Nevertheless as the office is largely ceremonial (the real executive power resides with the Chancellor), it is hard to see how Hofer could have done much to take Austria out of the EU.

The next big clue as to how dirigisme will continue to fare in Europe will be given by the French presidential election in 2017. President François Hollande, because of his very poor opinion poll ratings, has taken himself out of the race for re-election. Right now, Hollande’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, appears to be the most likely standard bearer for the Left and dirigisme in France. However, given the very real mess the Left has made of France in recent years (see video below), Mr. Valls is not the most probable winner. The most probable winner is one of two right-wing candidates:  François Fillon of the French Republican Party and Marine Le Pen of the even farther right National Front Party.

The economic disaster that is France.

Fillon, often called the French Thatcher for his admiration of the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, wants to greatly diminish the economic role of the state and revive a free-market economy. More specifically, he would end the mandated 35-hour work week, cut 500,000 jobs from the civil service and €100 billion from the government budget, abolish the wealth tax, reduce immigration (which is primarily from the Middle East and North Africa), and reduce taxes on companies and the wealthy, all while rebuilding the French military and strengthening other security measures for €12 billion. He also favors taking the fight to ISIS and doing what is required to destroy it. I have not found any evidence Fillon would try to lead France out of the EU, but neither have I seen anything that says he would not.

Fillon’s main competition appears to come from the National Front Party’s Marine Le Pen, who has been encouraged by Donald Trump’s election. CNN quotes Le Pen as saying about Trump’s election that it

makes the French realize that what the people want, they can get, if they mobilize themselves. Donald Trump has made possible what was presented as completely impossible. So it’s a sign of hope for those who cannot bear wild globalization. They cannot bear the political life led by the elites. … Each year that goes by, France sinks a little bit more into economic and social difficulties and I said five years ago, ‘We will take power, within the next 10 years,’ so I hope, I believe it will be in 2017.
Much of Le Pen’s attraction comes from her opposition to multiculturalism, of which she declares
I am opposed to a multicultural France, I think that those who have a different culture and who arrive in France have to submit themselves to French culture. Like the old saying, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ I think that in France we should do like the French people.
That doesn’t mean discriminating against, (or) persecuting; it means we have a culture, we have values, and all those who come to our place have to submit themselves to this culture and these values. … Saying … ‘Come as you are, keep living like you do, keep your culture and we will add all that together,’ doesn’t work. Multicultural societies are multi-conflict societies.

Marine Le Pen is very much a Eurosceptic, judging the European Union to be a “quasi-totalitarian political system.” 

What chance would either Fillon or Le Pen have if they tried to take France out of the EU? Actually they would have a truly excellent chance. From that same pan-European survey last June by the Pew Research Center cited earlier, we learn the French are even more unhappy about the EU than the British were just before Brexit.

Current attitudes toward the EU in important European countries.

Current attitudes toward the EU in important European countries.
Pew Research Center

At the time 44 percent of UK citizens felt favorably towards the EU with 48 percent viewing it unfavorably. In France only 38 percent view it favorably, with an absolute majority of 61 percent viewing it unfavorably! Since it is highly probable that either Marine Le Pen or François Fillon will be the next French president, the French disdain for the European Union takes on an ominous aspect for the EU. Should France execute a “Frexit”, the EU’s dirigiste goose probably will be cooked.

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