The EU’s future (2/4): Europe’s reforms need more than a new rule book

3 September 2013 – Financial Times (London)

The proposed changes to Italy’s constitution may galvanise an anti-reform bloc, says Tony Barber.

A camel is, the proverb has it, a horse designed by a committee. Creatures no less unsightly are being born out of the attempts of European nations to reshape their constitutionally enshrined systems of government. Two cases in point are Ireland and Italy. The changes afoot are intended to raise the quality of political life. But the results will be more meagre than the supporters of change contend. In the very different case of Hungary, the motives behind the reforms are less public-spirited and will do more harm than good.

Political leaders in Dublin and Rome see a connection between constitutional reform and the battle to overcome the national economic crises of the Eurozone era. The Irish government proposes to abolish the Senate, the upper legislative chamber. By the end of this year a referendum is likely. Given the contempt in which Irish voters hold their politicians for presiding over one of history’s most spectacular financial crashes, it will be no surprise if they kill off the Senate and dance for a week on its grave.

Italy’s left-right coalition plans to rewrite the electoral law and get rid of an entire tier of government – the 86 provinces that nestle lazily between Italy’s 20 regions and 8,000 municipalities. The government also wants to shrink parliament and end the system, dating from 1948 and unique in Europe, in which the upper and lower houses have exactly the same legislative powers. The deadline for adopting these changes is late 2014 but, if the coalition were to collapse, the reforms might go up in a puff of smoke.

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