Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, mired in a political crisis at home, traveled to Washington on Tuesday hoping he could tap into President Barack Obama’s star power to salvage his own political future and, more broadly, that of Europe.
Renzi has gambled his premiership on a constitutional referendum—the details of which many voters find arcane—that has already morphed into a referendum on Renzi himself after the premier said he would step down if he loses. It was a faux pas that Renzi now admits was a mistake, but can’t really retract.
The high-stakes referendum could tear at the fabric of Europe and drive the Eurozone’s third largest economy—and one of Obama’s closest European allies—into a state of deep uncertainty.
Renzi is hoping that the White House visit less than two months before the vote will help him turn the corner on the referendum, and it was, indeed, quite a show.
Tuesday’s celebration was the 13th and final state visit and state dinner of the Obama presidency. “We saved the best for last,” an upbeat Obama said in front of a packed crowd on the South Lawn of the White House. Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden joined Obama and Renzi, along with their spouses, Michelle Obama and Agnese Landini, for a celebration of Italian-American unity and culture.
For the state dinner, the first lady donned a floor-length rose gold chainmail gown designed by Atelier Versace, the White House said, while Landini’s was designed by Ermanno Scervino, a Florentine label. Renzi sported a navy blue Armani tuxedo. They posed for pictures in front of the U.S. and Italian media on a red carpet before heading into the White House through the north portico doors to kick off a star-studded evening.
“No one cares about what you wear. All they’re looking at is you!” Obama joked to his wife and Landini as the four made their way inside.
Earlier in the day at a joint press conference in the White House Rose Garden, Obama essentially gave Renzi’s initiatives his stamp of approval.
Constitutional reform was Renzi’s top priority when he came into office in February 2014, and now the fate of those reforms lies with the Italian people, who will vote Dec. 4 on whether to approve them.
If given the green light, the reforms would reduce the power and number of members in the Italian senate by handing all legislative duties to the 630-member Chamber of Deputies. Additionally, many governing responsibilities that previously were handed over to regional governments will be centralized at the federal level. The reforms would essentially overhaul Italy’s entire governmental structure.
“I know 2016 is not a very good year to organize a referendum,” Renzi joked in the Rose Garden. (Voters in the U.K. and Colombia shocked their governments and the world earlier in the year.) “But I think the Italian referendum is very simply a message because it’s about the fight against bureaucracy.”
Renzi said he does not foresee any “major disasters” if his side loses. He characterized the referendum as simply an internal political issue for his country to resolve. “This is something to simplify things in our country,” he said.
In more ways than one, though, the Italian referendum is a microcosm of a growing sentiment throughout Europe: Voters, fueled in part by a fear of migrants and terror attacks, are rejecting globalism and attempting to rip the fabric of what connects them—the European Union.
And now, in the twilight of his presidency, the burden is being placed on Obama’s shoulders to help try to keep Europe together before it’s too late.
Renzi, the Italian leader tasked with forming the 63rd Italian government since 1945, took office two years ago at age 39—making him the youngest prime minister in the history of the republic. Although he’s never been elected by popular vote, Renzi was dubbed early on as the “Italian Obama.” The former mayor of Florence was lauded for his youth and charisma much in the same way that Obama was during his first 2008 campaign—even borrowing Obama’s “Yes We Can” slogan.
Giorgio Napolitano, the Italian president at the time, chose Renzi for the role after his center-left Partito Democratico voted overwhelmingly in favor of him over then-Premier Enrico Letta. The resulting coup meant Letta was pushed out, but Italians have not actually elected a prime minister since they chose Silvio Berlusconi for his third non-consecutive stint in the job in 2008. He resigned after losing a parliamentary vote in 2011.
When Renzi said he would step down and leave politics altogether if he loses the referendum, he gave Italian opposition parties—namely, the populist Five-Star Movement, the anti-migrant groups Brothers of Italy and Northern League, and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia—yet another reason to oppose the referendum.
In a recent bout of damage control, Renzi cautioned Italians against making their decision on the referendum all about him.
“Don’t use the referendum with the desire to bring down the government,” he told a local radio station. “It would be a lost opportunity. It’s better to vote on the merits.”
At their joint press conference Tuesday, Obama endorsed the referendum because he said he believes it will pave the way for Renzi’s other “bold” reforms, which can only be instituted after a “yes” vote and with Renzi still in power.
“The upcoming referendum to modernize Italy’s political institutions is something the United States strongly supports because we believe that it will help accelerate Italy’s path towards a more vibrant, dynamic economy, as well as a more responsive political system.” Obama said, later adding: “And so I am rooting for success, but I think [Renzi] should hang around for a while no matter what.”
It will not be easy, Obama conceded. Recent polls have shown the referendum is a neck-and-neck contest, with many voters still undecided.
“Bluntly put, the referendum has become for a vast majority of Italians a referendum not on the Constitution but on Renzi,” Mario del Pero, a professor of international history at Sciences Po in Paris, told The Daily Beast. “The arcane constitutional technicalities are frankly too complicated to be assessed and understood on their merit.”
The Obama administration has already seen its ambassador to Rome, John Phillips, lobby on behalf of the reforms—and, by default, on behalf of the Renzi government. Last month, Phillips warned Italians that foreign money would stop flowing into the country if they vote down the reforms.
“Sixty-three governments in 63 years do not give guarantees,” Phillips said at the Istituto di Studi Americani, noting that a “yes” vote “offers hope of government stability to attract investors.”
Phillips, who was here in Washington for the festivities, was echoing the fears of many in the business community and Italy’s European Union partners that a “no” vote could plunge Italy into another economic crisis and roil world markets. But his comments also gave credence to the argument that the U.S. is flexing its diplomatic muscles to influence the outcome of another nation’s internal political battle.
“Phillips’s [comment] was quite a slip and a fairly clumsy one, which played into the hands of those—and there are legions—who still cry at the wolf of America’s interference, violation of sovereignty, imperialism, you name it,” said del Pero, an expert in the history of U.S. foreign relations.
The same was the case earlier this year when Obama traveled to London and urged voters there to reject a vote to leave the European Union. The president’s push was unsuccessful, and he was accused of improperly meddling in the country’s internal affairs.
For now, an Italian exit from the EU appears unlikely, regardless of the outcome in December. But a rise in anti-Europe sentiments could challenge that, depending on which ruling party takes over in the event that Renzi resigns. Italy could, at the very least, find itself plunging into a state of deep uncertainty.
Luigi di Maio, the deputy speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and a member of the Five Star Movement, has said he wants Italy to vote on its membership in the euro common currency if the referendum is rejected.
The Obama administration has a significant interest in Italian stability because it works with the country on key issues like the migrant crisis and the coalition to counter ISIS. Separately, del Pero said, Italy has been a reliable counterpart to the U.S. in opposing Germany’s push for austerity in the Eurozone’s less stable economies.
Renzi has said a “radical transformation” is needed in order to pave the way for other much-needed reforms in Italy and the surrounding region. In other words, according to Renzi, the constitutional referendum leaves other crises, like the flow of migrants into the country, hanging in the balance.
But likely no amount of American fairy dust can rectify the widening schism within Renzi’s own Partito Democratico over the referendum. In recent days some of the party’s most prominent members have come out against the constitutional changes, prompting Renzi to offer concessions in exchange for their support.
A Partito Democratico split could ultimately be the deciding factor if the “no” campaign prevails. The old guard in the party from whom Renzi usurped power early on might now have their chance to exact revenge against the premier.
Meanwhile, back in Italy, Renzi has tried to focus on the substance of the reforms. He recently shared an advertisement on Twitter that foreshadows the “yes” coalition’s tactics: “Se voti no, non cambia nulla.” (“If you vote no, nothing will change.”)
As he leaves Washington, that is exactly what Renzi is banking on for this make-or-break campaign in Italian politics: The fear that nothing will ever change in Italy.