News Analysis: Could populist victory in Italy set up tricky referendum on euro

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ROME, Feb. 4 (Xinhua) — Financial markets are responding to prospects that Italy may leave the 19-member Eurozone, as chances grow that the anti-euro Five-Star Movement political party may win the next round of national elections.

Polls show the notion of returning to the lira — Italy’s currency for 141 years ending in 2002, with the introduction of the euro — is growing more popular.

But the overwhelming consensus among economists and other experts is that if Italy abandoned the euro, it could end European monetary union, dramatically increase borrowing costs for the Italian government, and might plunge the country into a deep economic recession.

“There is a nostalgia for the lira and many people recall that times were better before the euro came into use,” Maria Rossi from the polling firm Opinioni told Xinhua.

Under the lira, Italy was able to keep a healthy trade balance by periodically devaluing the lira to make Italian-made products cheaper for foreign buyers.

That kept the economy growing, but a weak currency also made it expensive for Italians to travel abroad or buy foreign goods.

Luigi Zingales, an Italian-born economist now with the University of Chicago, has said the departure of the lira was because it took place as globalization started washing over Europe.

Now, experts say, a switch back to the lira would be difficult and painful, with few benefits.

“Borrowing costs would jump for Italy, for a variety of reasons,” ABS Securities economist Oliviero Fiorini said in an interview.

“Paying off existing euro-denominated debt in lira would be expensive, and interest rates on new lira-denominated debt would have to be very high to entice investors.

“And don’t forget, it would be a serious blow to the European Union, which means Italy would be in the midst of a reeling continent wide economy,” he said.

Mario La Torre, an economist with La Sapienza University in Rome, said if Italy withdrew from the euro-zone it would probably kill off the European Union.

“Don’t forget Italy was a founding member of the European Union, and one of the euro zone’s three largest economies,” La Torre told Xinhua. “I don’t believe the European Union could survive that.”

La Torre warned that if the European Union dissolves it could have long-lasting and worldwide consequences.

“Right now, there are three poles of influence and economic production in the world — North America led by the U.S., the Asian countries led by China, and the European Union,” he said.

“If Europe went back to being a collection of individual nations, that would change the world dramatically,” said La Torre.

Fiorini and La Torre are not alone in their views.

Ewald Nowotny, an Austrian economist on the European Central Bank’s governing council, said an Italian withdrawal from the euro zone would be “economic suicide” for the country. Salvatore Rossi, a deputy governor of the bank of Italy, said it would be a “disaster” for the country.

Markets are starting to get nervous about the prospect. The Italian Stock Exchange in Milan has been weak since the start of the year, and interest rates for Italian government debt are higher than at any other time since 2014.

Still, Maria Rossi said a referendum on whether or not Italy should leave the euro zone could very well pass.

A poll held in December showed 47 percent of Italians considered the euro a “bad thing” for the country; only 41 percent held the opposite view.

And leaders of the Five-Star Movement stand by their calls for the country to abandon the common currency.

The movement’s founder, comic and activist Beppe Grillo, has repeatedly said the move to drop the euro should be made “as soon as possible”, pointing to a study showing each delay of one year would cost the country tens of billions of euro.

The big question is still whether Grillo’s allies will be able to take power. A national vote is increasingly likely to be held around the middle of this year.

Polls show backing for the Five-Star Movement more or less even with the Democratic Party, which has produced Italy’s last three prime ministers.

But with the Democratic Party enduring intense internal fighting over its future, a victory for the Five-Star Movement may now be more likely than at any other time during the party’s seven-year history.

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