By Monica Raymunt, dpa
Published: 07 December 2016 Wednesday, 08:36 AM
Bonn, Dec 06 (deutschenews24.de/dpa) -- Depending on who you ask, the Italian electorate`s sound rejection of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi`s constitutional reforms in Sunday`s referendum had everything and nothing to do with the future of the European Union.
"The referendum was about a change to the Italian constitution - not about Europe," European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels on Monday.
The Italian premier had staked his political future on the reforms, which would have concentrated legislative powers in the hands of the government. Italian President Sergio Mattarella asked Renzi to postpone his resignation until parliament approves next year`s budget law.
"It comes at a very bad time for the EU," Rosa Balfour, acting director of the German Marshall Fund (GMF) Europe Program, told dpa.
"It`s a major setback, and it makes things complicated in the short-term," Balfour said.
There are doubts about the interim government`s ability to have much of a say in Brussels among the EU member states.
A chronic sufferer of political upheavals with high debt and high unemployment, Italy has historically struggled to assert its power in Brussels, and Renzi`s rhetoric during his tenure of less than three years did not always work in favour of that cause.
"Renzi was oscillating between eurosceptics and those who want to make Europe work," Daniel Gros, director at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels, told dpa.
"Leading up to the referendum, Renzi did not refrain from making anti-EU commentary," the GMF`s Balfour said.
"This was tolerated by Germany and France precisely because they recognized the value of Renzi as a stabilizing factor in Italy," Balfour said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her regret about Renzi`s decision to stand aside. "I`m sad that the referendum in Italy has not turned out as the prime minister had wished," she said about one of her key European allies.
"I have always worked very well together with Matteo Renzi," Merkel said. "I have always supported his reform course. But this, of course, is an inter-Italian decision which we have to respect."
Merkel`s Vice Chancellor and Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel urged Italy not to go too long without a new leadership. "Only the populists benefit from a standstill," he said.
So, with these populist groups making waves and headway in Italy, France, Britain and Germany: Is political stability an outdated notion from EU days gone by?
Eurosceptic populist leaders across Europe had high hopes for Austria this weekend, when far-right candidate Norbert Hofer ran against pro-EU Greens candidate Alexander Van der Bellen for the ceremonial post of president. Hofer lost, but his Freedom Party posted its best ever national election result.
Socialist French President Francois Hollande, driven by the lowest approval ratings of any president in modern French history, said last week that he will not stand for a second term in next year`s election.
"If Hollande had [decided to] run, the outlook for France would have been more uncertain," Gros said.
The decision means another centre-left candidate has a chance at the presidency, but it also leaves space for a centre- or far-right candidate - among them Francois Fillon of Les Republicains or Marine Le Pen of the National Front respectively - to fill the void.
Britain, another political powerhouse in Europe, gave a shock to the EU system with the June 23 referendum in favour of leaving the 28-member bloc.
Another shock could be in the making, though, as Britain`s Supreme Court opened a hearing Monday on whether parliamentary approval is needed before Prime Minister Theresa May can begin negotiations on a so-called Brexit.
In the meantime, Angela Merkel has confirmed she will stand for re-election in 2017 amid challenges from the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has made notable gains in recent local elections.
"With Renzi gone and Hollande lacking legitimacy, this tilts the balance of power toward Germany," CEPS communications head and research fellow Marco Incerti said.
"[Germany] is the stability anchor of the EU," Gros said.
"As long as the fundamental opposition - Die Linke and the AfD - don`t make drastic gains, Germany should remain rather solid, anchored in - and anchoring - the EU," Gros said.