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Europe’s December Day of Reckoning

VIENNA – While most of the European Union seems panic-stricken by the prospect of a victory for French far-right leader Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election in May, the EU’s next test will come much sooner. On Sunday, Italians will vote in a referendum on constitutional reforms, and Austrians will choose their next president. Both countries’ votes could have major ramifications beyond their borders.

In Italy, the upcoming plebiscite has become a popular confidence vote in Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who has said he will resign if the reforms are rejected. According to the latest polls, Renzi could be forced to make good on his pledge, which might spell the end of reformist social democracy in Italy – and beyond. In Austria, voters will choose between a pro- and an anti-EU candidate in the nationalist mold of Le Pen, Norbert Hofer of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). A victory for Hofer could add wind to Le Pen’s sails.

The constitutional changes that Renzi’s Yes campaign is asking voters to approve would undo some of his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi’s legacy – a legacy that serves as a prime example of the damage right-wing populism can do to a country. Among other things, Berlusconi altered Italy’s political system in such a way as to prevent the left from ever gaining full power again, and to block any criminal charges that could be leveled against him.

Renzi’s proposed reforms would, among other things, modernize the political system by disempowering the Senate (the upper house of Parliament). Such an amendment is sorely needed to eliminate political gridlock, and Renzi has already succeeded in getting it through both chambers of Parliament. Indeed, the plebiscite was only supposed to provide final confirmation.