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Political Victory, Italian Style

Political Victory, Italian Style
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After months of U.S.-inspired triangulation and the Byzantine political machinations more typical of his own country, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi scored a big victory this week, as the Senate approved a package of constitutional reforms that dramatically alter the makeup and function of the upper chamber itself.

Renzi staked his prime ministership on the constitutional reform. Following its approval, Renzi spoke in boisterous tones, guaranteeing that he will see his term through to 2018. Approval rested on an alliance with a coterie of lawmakers from across the aisle, in particular senators led by one-time Silvio Berlusconi confidante Denis Verdini. Opposition parties abstained and will use the reform's passage -- hampered by internal dissent, accusations of ‘dictatorial' behavior, and the general indifference of the voting public -- to undergird their own electoral platforms moving forward. There remains a long road before the reform's final approval. Let's take a sweep of Italian media to delve into the details:

Center-Left daily La Repubblica:

"ROME - Walkouts, contestations, green cravats, castor oil, tricolor pamphlets and protest placards, but also symbolic embraces between two of the Senate's ‘old men.' This is the background against which Palazzo Madama approved the Boschi Bill that reforms the Senate and Article 5, with 179 votes in favor, 16 against, and 7 abstentions. It's a victory for premier Renzi against opposition both within the Democratic Party and outside. ... This approval, however, is but the first round. The two Houses will have to vote on the final text again, then a referendum and a final consultation. At earliest, we're looking at 2017, and there are more than a few pitfalls for the law."

Il Messaggero:

"‘This was a masterpiece, and now it's clear that we will carry on through 2018.' Matteo Renzi says it loud and proud. The law that abolishes the Senate still has to survive two sittings, but it's as if these have already happened. The worst now is water under the bridge. The ‘Vietnam' predicted and oft-threatened by dissidents never took place. Indeed, the Boschi bill could be national law by springtime. That lawmaker's [Boschi's] great initial satisfaction is thus logical: ‘This is a beautiful day for Italy. The political victory is Renzi's, and no one denies that.'"

Far-left paper Il Manifesto:

"The government is triumphant, but the numbers show that the crossover centre-right vote was indispensable. That starts with the Verdini group, whose 13 senators all were present."

The journal Internazionale explains key elements of the reform:

"Senators will no longer be elected by voters, but rather by regional councils. The new Senate will seat 100 senators (today there are 315); 95 representatives of territorial institutions (74 regional counselors and 21 mayors) and 5 presidential nominees. The duration of a senator's mandate will coincide with that of the offices of the organs of provincial or regional institutions.

"[The Senate] will become the ‘Chamber of Autonomy.' Palazzo Madama will no longer have legislative functions, but more oversight powers. It will verify the activities of public administration, the implementation of laws, and the repercussions of EU policies on the territories. In general it will service as a ‘junction between the state and the constituent entities of the republic.'"

Meanwhile, as picked up by Il Sole 24 Ore, Renzi pivoted from national politics to this week's gathering in Brussels of European leaders. Renzi was already expected to present a harder line at the Council against austerity, and he used his country's recent reforms to hammer home the theme:

"‘With each tile Italy places in the mosaic of reforms, it acquires the right to say that the European political economy of these years has not worked.'

"‘Italy has been constantly called upon to hold to commitments it wasn't maintaining,' Renzi recalled. ‘But today we have greater authority and credibility to say at the EU roundtable that the political economy of these years has not produced the hoped-for results.'"

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Around the Continent

EU Wants Turkish help: On the eve of the EU summit, Europe is throwing some carrots Ankara's way:

"European Council President Donald Tusk told Turkey yesterday (13 October) that it could win concessions from the EU, such as visa-free travel, if it successfully reduces the flow of refugees reaching Europe. Three EU Commissioners are due to visit Ankara today, ahead of Thursday's (15 October) EU summit.

"In a letter to EU leaders setting the agenda for the summit he will chair in Brussels on Thursday, Tusk noted the start this month of negotiations on the migration crisis with Turkey, which EU officials say wants more visa waivers, more EU funding and progress on its longstanding application to join the bloc."


Polish populism in an era of prosperity: As elections approach in Poland an unusual intervention illustrates the dissatisfaction of the electorate. Politico EU's Jan Cienski fills us in on the "Corbynization" of Polish politics:

"‘Certainly, I am with those that describe the last 25 years as Poland's golden age. That's beyond any doubt,' Belka, 63, who is much less shy about giving his political views than the average central banker, told POLITICO. ‘What we observe in Poland goes beyond the failures or successes of any political party. But as an economist I must admit that I have very few answers.'

"Belka broke with the normal etiquette of central bankers to speak openly about his fears that the increasingly lavish promises being made in the final days of Poland's parliamentary election campaign could be so costly and ill-thought-out that they could derail a quarter century of startling economic progress.

"Opinion polls put the nationalist opposition Law and Justice party far ahead of the ruling Civic Platform ahead of the October 25 vote. The latest survey by TNS had Law and Justice (PiS) on 36 percent and Civic Platform trailing at 24 percent."

Is Belarus in play? Building on yesterday's item on Belarus, the elections just held in the country, as well as the suspension of sanctions by the West, illustrate two dynamics. The first is that Russia's grip is slipping over a country that has effectively functioned as a satellite of the Kremlin. The European Council on Foreign Relations' Andrew Wilson offered this important take before the vote. Well worth clicking over to read the article in its entirety:

"The election takes place in a highly volatile environment, and standard political assumptions for both Belarus and its neighbourhood are fast becoming untenable. Traditionally, Belarus was understood as the ‘last dictatorship in Europe', and was therefore under sanctions from the EU and U.S. Belarus was Russia's closest ideological and security ally, and was propped up by massive Russian subsidies amounting at times to 20 percent of GDP. Lukashenko used these subsidies to maintain a neo-Soviet social and economic system in which considerable effort was made to raise welfare and living standards.

"However, with elections this week, much of this may be about to change. First, because the shockwaves from Ukraine raise the possibility of Belarus de-coupling from Russia which would create further regional tensions. Second, Belarus is facing serious economic troubles. Third, and in many ways the biggest challenge for Lukashenko, is the difficulty of managing a Belarusian future with less subsidies and less to spend on upholding the country's traditional ‘social contract'. A Belarus without populism would be as big a change as a more independent Belarus."

The second dynamic is that of a more cynical Europe. Recognizing the strategic importance of a Belarus in transition, the European Union has suspended sanctions for four months, despite the election's dubious (to phrase it generously) legitimacy and the lack of civil society in the country. The German Marshall Fund's Maryna Rakhlei urges caution amid the pragmatic shift:

"Belarus is trying to master a balancing act between the open (in every sense) arms of Mother Russia and skeptical Western countries, between not-too-much-Russia and not-too-much-West-not-to-irritate-Russia. For this reason, Lukashenko has publicly opposed Russian plans to establish an airbase in Belarus. At the same time, he has also sworn to fight for the Russian brothers through all means available.

"Writer Svetlana Alexievich, the recent Nobel Prize laureate from Belarus, warns the West that appeasement works only as long as Minsk is negotiating with Moscow. As she sees it, as soon as money from Russia arrives, he will turn his back on the transatlantic allies and their demands for democratization."

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