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Italy's Renzi vows to win referendum seen as crucial for future of Europe

Despite facing what is effectively a vote of confidence in his leadership come October when a referendum on constitutional reform is due to take place, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told CNBC that he was sure of a win.

"I am sure we (will) win," Renzi told CNBC in an exclusive interview in Rome on Monday.

"This referendum is about the future of the country and I am sure the Italian people, if (they) read the question in the ballot in the electoral place, will vote for change," he said.

Voters will go to the polls in October to make the final decision on whether they approve constitutional reforms long championed by Renzi, including a plan to strip the upper chamber of parliament, the Senate, of most of its power and radically cuts its numbers.

The vote is potentially very destabilizing as Renzi has pledged to resign if the public votes "no." The prime minister was keen to distance the vote from being about his leadership, however.

"Our strategy in the next weeks will be (to promote the fact that) this is not Renzi's referendum. This is a referendum," he said.

Asked if he would resign if he lost the vote, Renzi would not answer the question directly and was adamant of victory, repeating "I will win."

Renzi might appear confident but as recent history has proved in the U.K., public opinion and referendum results can be hard to predict. As with the U.K.'s referendum on membership of the European Union (EU) that was held in June, Italy's referendum is also seen as close run with many voters undecided.

Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group puts a 60 percent probability on the Italian referendum passing. However, it says polls have narrowed sharply since April, making a no vote more likely as the government's popularity wanes.

A no vote would likely cause the Renzi government to collapse, according to Eurasia.

"A debilitated Renzi would come under intense pressure to resign; he may himself not wish to cling on to power," analysts Federico Santi and Mujtaba Rahman said on Friday in a report.

'Strong message of radical change'

Aside from the referendum, Renzi is facing another serious challenge on the political front with the rise in popularity of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

The Five Star Movement is critical of EU institutions – as are many of the populist parties propagating across Europe – and poses a challenge to Renzi's Democratic Party, scoring a major victory Party in June when it won mayoral elections in Rome and Turin – results which Renzi played down.

"I am really confident for the future of my country and let me be very clear, also of my party. Because the Democratic Party at this moment in Europe is the only party in the Socialist field who really gives a very strong message of radical change," he told CNBC.

Wake-up call

Justin Tallis | AFP | Getty Images

Rather than worrying over the threat to political stability within his own country, Renzi told CNBC that Europe's leaders had to learn from the U.K.'s recent vote to quit the European Union (EU) or risk placing the bloc in further jeopardy.

"There are (will be) a lot of problems around Europe, if Europe doesn't consider Brexit an incredible wake up."

The U.K.'s referendum has raised questions about the long-term sustainability of the 28-country union and how its politicians engage with voters.

"I think the priority is to really change the relation between Europe and citizens. If we don't change, the risk will be Europe becomes responsible (in the eyes of citizens) for every problem in this continent," he later added.

Most important, in Renzi's opinion, was shaking off the "religion of austerity" and embracing public and private investment.

No names were mentioned, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been a strong advocate of fiscal austerity since the euro zones economic crisis in 2010.

"If Europe continues to only discuss (economic) technocrats, the role of technicians, Europe is finished. So the question is … how everyone could help their respective countries to consider Europe as a great place for the future for democracy and ideals," Renzi said.

Beppe Grillo
ANDREAS SOLARO | AFP | Getty Images
Beppe Grillo

In order to overhaul the euro zone economies, countries embarked on a program of strict austerity: raising and reforming taxes and cutting public investment significantly from 2010 onward. The so-called peripheral economies – Italy, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain – state spending declined by around 7-10 percent in real terms per year between 2010 and 2015, according to research firm Oxford Economics.

These austerity programs also had a dampening effect on growth with some international organizations, like the International Monetary Fund, are arguing for more expansionary fiscal policies.

"I am totally sure if we choose a different Europe in which there is not only austerity, but investment … I think with every effort we can change this direction (of countries considering leaving the EU)," Renzi said.


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