BY PATRICK KELLEY
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi implored SAIS students to advance political dialogue in the face of rising global populism during his speech Wednesday morning at SAIS’s Washington, D.C. campus. The speech came as part of his official state visit, including what was likely President Obama’s final state dinner.
During his hour-long visit, Renzi called on students to “help us to surpass the politics of 140 characters,” and warned of the dangers of nationalism and isolationism driving populist movements in America and Europe, and leading to what he described as “verbal violence.”
Renzi’s visit to SAIS came weeks ahead of Italy’s Dec. 4th constitutional referendum, when Italians will vote on whether to shrink the size of the senate with the aim of reducing political gridlock in Rome. Renzi has tied his premiership to the vote, saying he will step down as Prime Minister should the country vote against the plebiscite.
While Renzi has vowed publicly to leave office should the referendum fail, President Obama said yesterday that he would like Renzi to “hang around for a while no matter what.”
As part of Renzi’s push for a “yes” vote, the 41-year-old Prime Minister enlisted the services of former Obama adviser Jim Messina, paying him around €400,000 to advance the “yes” campaign. Messina, who also advised David Cameron on Brexit, will look to the referendum for his first victory in European plebiscite advising.
Recent polls have the “no” camp leading, with Renzi’s greatest challenges coming from populist political parties like The Northern League and the 5Star Movement, which won Rome’s mayoral race in June.
The referendum has also pulled former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from political hibernation to rally his party, Forza Italia, against the referendum. Berlusconi, who was barred from office after being convicted of tax fraud, claims that the referendum is merely a distraction from “the economic failures of [Renzi’s] government.”
Renzi — who is advised on economic matters by SAIS professor Filippo Taddei — emphasized that fledgling economies drive populism even more than the deadly terrorism that has ravaged the European continent in recent months.
In the face of political opposition and uncertainty, Renzi spoke hopefully of the future, quoting John F. Kennedy toward the end of his speech: “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
Renzi will end his state visit at Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery.