Relaunch? What relaunch?

Cameron and Clegg failed to offer anything new as they fought back after Thursday's local election b

As relaunches go, this was anything but drastic. Following the hammering that both their parties got in the local elections on Thursday, David Cameron and Nick Clegg chose the suitably austere setting of a Basildon factory to reaffirm their mission, but they had little new to offer.

 

While the setting was a far cry from the (in)famous rose garden, the words were not. The pair said that the economy was in a far worse state “than anyone thought” when they took over, and that they would do “whatever it takes” to get it back on track.

 

Cameron reiterated that deficit reduction would continue to be the coalition’s “guiding task”. He used several phrases that will be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to politics over the last two years. The nation’s credit card is “maxed out”; you can’t solve debt with more debt; welfare should reward people “who do the right thing”. All of which begs the question: what exactly has changed?

 

ITV’s Chris Ship was on hand to ask exactly that question.  Cameron said that they would focus on the things that matter the most. Heading the list was – you guessed it – the economy. He said that the main focus for him would be “what we can do to get our economy moving”. But while he acknowledged the problems with living standards and jobs, there were no new measures, no shift of focus on offer. Clegg added that the coalition would redouble its efforts to govern for the whole country after taking a beating in local elections in Scotland, Wales and the north.

 

That takes us to the crux of the issue: this wasn't about policy, it was an attempt to show that the coalition is in touch with the concerns of ordinary voters. Suffering in the polls and struggling to recover in the eyes of the public from George Osborne's toxic Budget, this was intended to show that the government is listening.

 

But it is hard to see how anyone could be reassured by today’s appearance. Blaming the recession of 2008 for all the problems of governance is starting to sound hollow in 2012. As my colleague George Eaton pointed out earlier today, the government’s commitment to deficit reduction above all else has in fact led to higher than expected borrowing. The two leaders did not even put a new spin on old ideas, let alone consider new ideas. Don’t hold your breath for an economic Plan B.
 

Desperate times desperate measures in Essex, 8th May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.