MILAN — Italy is at a crossroads. And so is the country’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who has been promoting a referendum to vote on a change in the country’s constitution.
The result of a referendum scheduled for Sunday, which Renzi says would streamline Italy’s government decisions, holds several different implications that range from political upheaval followed by general elections to — a more drastic scenario forecast by some observers — an exit from the euro currency zone.
Renzi has vowed to step down if he loses the referendum and the most recent polls show that his proposals are, indeed, headed for a defeat as Italy looks set to join the trend toward political upheaval seen first with the Brexit vote last June and then with the election of Donald Trump as president.
But the fashion industry — which Renzi has courted assiduously throughout his tenure — remains firmly in his camp.
Former Valentino and Salvatore Ferragamo chief executive officer Michele Norsa was all for putting everything “in the right perspective.” The referendum doesn’t overturn the political scenario of the country, he said, which has been stable for the past 24 months.
“Outside of Italy, it has been emphasized as a referendum on Europe,” he said. While admitting its relevance, Norsa did not see it as such.
He highlighted a number of important reforms Renzi implemented during his tenure, such as the Jobs Act, and the government’s support of Made in Italy production as it strengthened its relations with countries such as Russia and China. “I hope there will be a high participation to the referendum, but I don’t think that one or the other final result will lead to a dead end. We should not be too dramatic about this.”
Norsa said there have been “positive signs” about a strong Europe, with Angela Merkel as a candidate to lead Germany once again, calling for European unity, and stronger tourist flows to Italy, Spain and the U.K. “It’s important for Europe to remain united, it needs stability. The role of leaders is to help keep a balance and the markets are doing so, too. See how they quickly recovered after the U.S. elections,” Norsa said.
Moncler chairman and ceo Remo Ruffini also said during the annual Pambianco fashion and luxury summit in November that “political stability is paying off, attracting tourists and investments,” and expressed his concern for changes that would cause uncertainty.
Brunello Cucinelli was equally upbeat. “For Italy, this is a very positive moment of growth and companies are competitive.” He views the referendum as a tool that will allow the country to be “faster and more contemporary,” and to streamline bureaucracy if “yes” wins. “I am in love with Italy and our constitution, and I will vote yes. We have the duty to make it more contemporary.”
Cucinelli remarked on the idea that this has become a personal and political issue associated with Renzi. “It should not be, it’s meant to support Italy. Presidents pass, Italy doesn’t. I have a lot of faith in Italy. And in any case, it’s beautiful that everyone is back to discussing politics, just as we did back in the Seventies,” he said.
He is aware “foreign investors are afraid ‘no’ will win, but I want to ease their minds, this is an internal issue, to change Italy’s political culture. The country’s political and cultural renovation has begun and it will not stop.”
Renzi was sworn in in February 2014, the country’s youngest prime minister, vowing to “pull Italy out of the quagmire,” and soon proposing a reform that is now so closely identified with his persona that it could turn against him. Renzi says the reforms being voted on would streamline Italy’s government decisions. His opponents, and those unhappy with the country’s lackluster economic growth, are jumping on this promise.
Although the general public is either confused or uncertain about the referendum, the final rush of public opinion polls show voters are leaning toward voting “no” and turning down the constitutional reforms.
As of Nov. 18, the last day available to publish polls before a blackout period until the vote, a poll by Ipsos for Italy’s daily Corriere della Sera showed the “no” camp in the lead, in a trend that has been predominant for several weeks, with 55 percent of voters.
If the referendum passes, the number of senators would be reduced from 315 to 100. They would no longer be elected directly but would be regional representatives instead. Renzi contends the change will guarantee political stability in Italy and allow lawmakers to pass reforms quickly, without being stalled at the level of the senate, the upper chamber of parliament. Though with the constitutional change it would be easier for a party that has won an election to take the majority of seats of parliament’s lower house.
Renzi has warned voters that if the referendum does not pass, whoever will succeed him will be “a slave to vetoes, blackmail and bureaucracy.” Those against the change claim the chamber of deputies will end up having too much power.
The prime minister’s popularity has waned over the past few weeks. As of Nov. 22, according to data provided by Istituto Ixè for Agroà, only 4 percent of those polled declared having “much faith” in the Renzi government, 35 percent “little faith” and 34 percent “no faith.” Renzi has promised to implement electoral and tax reforms.
The Italian media has been reporting on how voters are unclear about the question being asked and are more prone to vote in favor or against Renzi.
OTB founder Renzo Rosso said this is “a very important decision for Italy. The population must participate, be informed, understand and, especially, go and vote. The choices that concern the future of the country must not be associated to people and the true consequences must be understood. What irks me the most is this constant disposition to criticize, insult and sully without any will to build.”
He also lamented that opposing parties join forces to fuel instability. Rosso underscored that Italy today, despite its difficulties “and too much power in too many centers of power, is performing well and gaining appreciation around the world. Now there is a need for stability.”
While underscoring that everyone has the right to express their opinions, he wondered why there was no constructive dialog that would occur in the best interest of the country.
Massimo Ferretti, executive chairman of Aeffe, said that “Italy, in this phase, has an opposition that tends to misinterpret the meaning and the goal of a referendum and an ensuing change of the electoral law. I think it should be clear to everyone that it is a duty of this country, which has seen 63 governments since the end of World War II, to review some rules.”
The fashion industry, from Diego Della Valle of Tod’s to Gildo Zegna of Ermenegildo Zegna Group, has been a key supporter of Renzi, who inaugurated Milan Fashion Week in February and in September this year, and executives continue to underscore the politician’s efforts to modernize the country.
Patrizio Bertelli, ceo of Prada Group, said that “Renzi has revved up a mechanism, this is unquestionable. Obviously Renzi as a prime minister has his opponents, it’s normal. To me, the opponents have used the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote to their own ends, to be polemic toward Renzi’s government, creating instability. After [Bettino] Craxi and [Silvio] Berlusconi, this has been the most stable government. In Italy, any government that lasts for five years is a luxury. In other countries it’s normal.” Bertelli added that the idea suggested by some that the referendum would mean exiting the euro was “excessive.”
“Renzi has worked a lot on changes. He’s based everything on this reform. If he doesn’t win, there is no vote of confidence, it’s a rejection of his views and I would expect that he would take a step back. If he stays, he must have his reasons or because of a sense of correctness. We don’t know what happens in the palazzo, but it’s his decision,” concluded Bertelli.
Yoox Net-a-porter Group ceo Federico Marchetti said he thought and hoped that the “process of modernization, the reforms and changes would be independent from the course of events.”
Ferruccio Ferragamo, chairman of the Salvatore Ferragamo group, has known Renzi since he was mayor of Florence, where the luxury brand is based, and said that the young politician has “worked well” from back then, introducing several innovative ideas. “I am very grateful for what he has done in fashion, he never took Made in Italy for granted, and has been personally engaged in the fashion and luxury industry. I think we should give him credit and have faith in him.”
Ferragamo added that he did not understand the controversies within Renzi’s own party, stemming perhaps from internal competition. “I don’t feel I have the tools to discuss the constitution but I think it’s right to review it and simplify it in light of today’s needs. We apply the same process to our companies.”
Aware that many citizens don’t really understand what the referendum is about, Ferragamo said it was fair “to delegate to someone that would handle this process and I trust Renzi. If we vote ‘no’ we leave things as they are, and so we can’t complain afterward.”
The executive added that he couldn’t even “imagine or think” about the scenario if “no” wins. “If I know Renzi, he wouldn’t just want to carry on.”