Israeli with front seat to Italian upheaval sees no chance for ‘Italexit’
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Israeli with front seat to Italian upheaval sees no chance for ‘Italexit’

Yoram Gutgeld, Matteo Renzi’s top economic adviser, tells The Times of Israel it would be ‘crazy’ to leave the EU as populists seek power in Rome

Yoram Gutgeld with Italian PM Matteo Renzi (Courtesy)
Yoram Gutgeld with Italian PM Matteo Renzi (Courtesy)

The Israeli-born top economic adviser to outgoing Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi says the results of a failed referendum on government reforms won’t lead to Rome leaving the European Union and sees a future for the wunderkind of Italian politics despite the stinging loss.

Yoram Gutgeld, 56, is currently a member of the Democratic Party and the Chamber of Deputies. Since 2012, he has been Renzi’s right-hand man on molding economic policy. For decades he worked in Italy at McKinsey & Company, a global management-consulting firm.

Gutgeld told The Times of Israel in an interview shortly after the referendum results that analysts should not see shades of the populist wave that has seen shock victories by Brexiters and US President-elect Donald Trump in Italy’s case.

“It would be crazy for Italy to leave the EU and the majority of Italians don’t want to leave the European Union,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Yoram Gutgeld (Courtesy)
Yoram Gutgeld (Courtesy)

But many took exactly the opposite message from the stunning success of the “no” camp in Italy’s December 4 vote on a slate of government reforms, which turned into a referendum on the prime minister himself once Renzi staked his political future on the success of a “yes” vote.

A solid 59 percent majority of Italians voted against reforms that would have changed many aspects of the Italian Constitution, most notably with the abolition of the Senate and a modification in the representation of territorial institutions. Voter turnout for the referendum was 70%.

Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announces his resignation during a press conference at the Palazzo Chigi following the results of the vote for a referendum on constitutional reforms, on December 5, 2016 in Rome. (Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images)
Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announces his resignation during a press conference at the Palazzo Chigi following the results of the vote for a referendum on constitutional reforms, on December 5, 2016 in Rome. (Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images)

Renzi has since resigned after being initially asked to stay on to pass the budget, which he did on Wednesday.

It’s not yet clear if Italy will go to early elections or a caretaker government – which will likely be decided once President Sergio Mattarella meets with political parties over the weekend – but either way, Eurosceptics in Italy have seen the results as an opportunity to charge closer to power.

Chief among them is the Five Star Movement, founded by former comedian Beppe Grillo, which appears at the moment to be the most popular opposition party in Italy.

The party’s policies are variously anti-establishment, Eurosceptic, anti-immigration and pro-green. Should Five Star take power, the possibility of an exit of Italy seems almost a given.

Leader of Five-Star Movement Beppe Grillo addresses a rally ahead of the Italian constitutional referendum in Turin, Italy, December 2, 2016. (Alessandro Di Marco/ANSA via AP)
Leader of Five Star Movement Beppe Grillo addresses a rally ahead of the Italian constitutional referendum in Turin, Italy, December 2, 2016. (Alessandro Di Marco/ANSA via AP)

Gutgeld was born and raised in Tel Aviv but moved to Italy in 1989, eventually taking on citizenship and moving up the ladder at McKinsey & Company’s Italy branch. In 2012, he met Renzi, then mayor of Florence, and decided to hitch his wagon to the young, popular politician, in the hopes of helping him bring much-needed reforms to Italy’s famously unruly political and economic scenes.

With the wheels now seemingly off that wagon, Gutgeld still manages to project a sense of optimism speaking to The Times of Israel in an interview conducted in Italian.

TOI: What do you think about the results of this referendum?

I don’t contest the results of it, of course. It was a democratic decision and Italians decided in this way. The possibility of losing was real and polls were showing that the NO was leading with a little margin until the last day. Obviously, we couldn’t have predicted such a large victory.

Did Renzi commit any mistake that could have led to his defeat in this referendum

Renzi, as he said, personified the referendum too much, so it became a political vote, not anymore a vote about the Constitution. It was a political tactic mistake made by him, but at the same time, this personification showed his political acumen.

Since the beginning, he was clear: he would resign in the case of defeat. The reform of the Constitution was something crucial to be done in Italy, and he didn’t have any choice but to propose it.

So what now? What’s the future for Renzi?

There will be a caretaker government, and very soon there will be new elections. I hope that Matteo Renzi will run for these new elections because he still has a lot to give to Italy.

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi after addressing a rally ahead of the Italian constitutional referendum in Florence, Italy, December 2, 2016. (Maurizio Degl'Innocenti/ANSA via AP)
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi after addressing a rally ahead of the Italian constitutional referendum in Florence, Italy, December 2, 2016. (Maurizio Degl’Innocenti/ANSA via AP)

If you think about, in this referendum he got the 40% of votes all alone, compared to the majority won by all the other parties combined. This percentage is significant, and it shows that many Italians still believe in him.

Should the Eurosceptic 5-Star Movement win in new elections, could this lead to an Italexit from the EU and the Euro?

It would be crazy for Italy to leave the EU and the majority of Italians don’t want to leave the European Union. So I exclude this possibility, even though many parties like the 5-Star Movement and right-wing parties are pushing toward this direction.

Of course, events like the Brexit, the result of this referendum and the election of Donald Trump are all different from each other, but they all highlight social inequality. European politicians will have to understand this thing and provide a concrete political response to the populism, which will mainly mean reforming social policies.

Your own Democratic Party was divided over this referendum, and many members decided to go against their leader. What happened?

Anti-referendum militants gather in downtown Rome after Italian Premier Matteo Renzi conceded defeat in a constitutional referendum and announced he will resign in Rome, early Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. Banner in Italian reads "You wanted to change the Constitution? Goodby Bella". (AP/Gregorio Borgia)
Anti-referendum militants gather in downtown Rome after Italian Premier Matteo Renzi conceded defeat in a constitutional referendum and announced he will resign in Rome, early Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. Banner in Italian reads ‘You wanted to change the Constitution? Goodbye Bella’ (AP/Gregorio Borgia)

The Democratic Party’s minority behaved in an unacceptable way. It is one thing to criticize a reform and another thing to campaign against your party. The first thing is understandable; the second one is not, especially considering that the same members of the Democratic Party already voted for this reform six times between the Parliament and the Senate.

You spent a lot of time with Renzi. What can you tell us about him?

He is a man of high intelligence and great courage. He has excellent communications skills, and he thinks in a very fast way. He is a leader with great capacities, and that’s why I decided to leave my job and work with him.

What are you going to do now? Will you continue to work with him?

My family lives in Italy, so I’ll remain here. I am still a member of Parliament, and I am the current Spending Review Commissioner until 2018. So I’ll be there, and I’ll continue standing beside Matteo Renzi, of course.

Joshua Davidovich contributed to this report.

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