On 25 May the ‘Direct Democracy and the European Unification Process’ roundtable celebrated the 20th anniversary of the joint Swiss Chair position. It was also the first 100% in-person academic event held at Villa Schifanoia since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring four main speakers and 25 socially-distanced and masked audience attendees.
The roundtable focused on examining Professor Georg Kreis's book 'Why Italy Was For Europe: On the History of the 1989 Advisory Referendum', which explores the lead-up and after-effects of the 1989 Italian advisory referendum, in which 88% of voters voted to re-affirm the popular support of Italy to the process of European integration. It then explored the role of referenda in the European unification process and analysed why Italy has grown increasingly Eurosceptic since 1989.
Rita Adam (Italian Ambassador to Switzerland) opened up the event by introducing Georg Kreis and stressing the importance of academic and political co-operation between Switzerland and Italy. Adam stated, "Debate is at the heart of the democratic political system, and the democratic culture of debate underlies the European unification process, this roundtable discussion will help us broaden our view."
Professor Georg Kreis claimed that the 1989 referendum is largely ignored when studying the European Union’s history, and that analysing the proposal offers a glimpse into a potentially alternate reality for the EU. “The referendum could have set an important course,” said Kreis. According to Kreis, Italian politicians intended for the referendum to encourage Belgium and Spain to hold similar ones, which would then prompt the other nine EC members to follow along with unification. However, Kreis acknowledged that the plan had two major weakness that prevented this vision from becoming reality. Firstly, Italy became the only European country with a constitutional referendum, and secondly, the majority of European Parliament members had no desire to upgrade or change their constituent assemblies. Professor Kries closed his comments by posing a question to the other panelists, “If Italy was decidedly pro-Europe until the beginning of the 1990s, then why has this support seemingly evaporated today?”
In response to Kries’s query, Francesca Piazza, Italian parliamentary councilor and head of the Commisione Affari esteri e comunitari in the Camera dei deputati, claimed that, “Italy was and still is for Europe… Around 70% of the population is very much in favour of the EU.” Piazza also stated that Italy’s ‘dramatic constitutional fever’ in the 1980s reminds her of the Italian post-war and anti-Fascist experience, which developed the origins for Italian Europeanism. “[For Italians] Europeanism equals Anti-Fascism” said Piazza, “it is a component of a checks-and-balances package based on the centrality of parliament as an antibody against the resurrection of potential new regimes." Speaking on the topic of direct democracy, she also argued that the 1989 referendum used direct democracy as a tool to reshape the country in a European and federalist direction.
Lastly, Daniele Caramani suggested that while referenda are typically ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, each side is made up of different coalitions with convergences of interest. In the case of the 88% “yes” response in the 1989 referendum, Caramani argued that the overwhelming "yes" majority is actually made up of a convergence between three major Italian political parties of the era: the Christian Democrats, the Communists, and the Northern League. Each of whom had various political interests ranging on different sides of the political spectrum that, “converged into a constellation of concrete economic and territorial interests.” However, Caramani claimed that tensions between each of these parties, as well as the major 'Mani pulite' corruption scandal in 1994, eventually caused them and their fragile alliance to break down. “The system of government is then replaced by the ‘2nd Republic’ which is dominated by the Berlusconi figure and where you increasingly find seeds of anti-Europeanism.” Caramani also detailed how other reforms and referendums in Italy during the period, the largest being the switch to the Euro currency, did not produce the massive impact and benefits that lawmakers hoped for. “These various reforms are not seen as improvements in the living and working conditions of Italians, and many begin to view Europe and the EU as one that restrains Italians.”
The full livestream of the roundtable event is available on the Robert Schuman Centre YouTube channel.