Commentary. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is trying to appease eurosceptics and socialists in the lead-up to the Dec. 4 referendum.

Italy abstains on E.U. 2017 budget

As expected, the European Council and Parliament agreed on the 2017 European budget Thursday night. And as expected, Italy abstained, the first time this has happened in the history of the Union. It was actually a calibrated move: The annual budget does not require unanimity, and the vast majority of countries — all but two — were in favor. So even an Italian vote against the budget would only have had a symbolic value.

The abstention confirms the hardline of the Renzi government and strengthens the threat to vote against the multi-annual budget, which requires unanimity — but without overdoing it.

The abstention is justified by the acceptance of some of the modifications Italy requested, especially on the allocation of additional €700 million for the Erasmus and Youth Projects. “A few steps forward, but not enough,” according to Undersecretary Sandro Gozi who reiterates his now daily threat: “We keep the veto on the overall budget and we will evaluate the situation again in December.”

To be clear, it is a “reserved” vote and not a “veto,” but the term is used to bolster the chaotic election campaign in which Matteo Renzi has hung his hat on euroscepticism. The idea would be to occupy the entire board by presenting itself as a force of government to bear in the name of stability and as anti-system force to be strengthened in the name of radical transformation.

It is an ambitious project but perhaps a little too brazen to work: It cannot be at the same time the tricolor version of Donald Trump and the banner of resistance to the wave that brought Trump to triumph. Although Renzi does what he can to keep his balance: “Obama was a giant, but Trump has been elected president.”

For the now famous “Italian veto,” the moment of truth will not arrive in December. The negotiations, even if Italy confirms its referendum No, will last a long time. December is not the last frontier either for what the actual deal on the table is: the verdict on the Italian budget law. Not only is there time between now and January, as established by the meeting of the European Council, but it could be postponed again until spring, like last year. But on that front, December really will bring clarity.

For now, Europe has not initiated any explosive infringement procedures, but it has not even officially claimed a correction of the maneuver. To be sure, until the important referendum has passed, it’s important not only for Rome but also for Brussels that this can’t be done. Soon after, however, no matter the outcome, the path will be clear and all indications are that the demand will come.

Commissioner for the Economy Moscovici let this be understood — or rather he announced it. In recent weeks, he has increasingly presented himself as the defender of good Italian reasoning. He is aware that “a part of the expenditure is linked to the arrival of refugees and the earthquakes.” He is willing to accept “a temporary further departure from the goals.” But even so, “there is a gap that needs to be closed to be in line with the Stability Pact.”

We must also see, after the polls close, how the E.U. will take the new expense of €730 million that Renzi, in his increasingly frantic hunt for the lost vote, promised as a total tax credit in favor of companies that will create jobs in the South next year. On Thursday, the prime minister assured these millions are “ready.”

The two tables will intertwine in December, although no word yet which way things will go. On Thursday, Renzi repeated until he was hoarse that if Italians choose the swamp, they “will not stay afloat.” Same goes for his campaign. The list of ministers for the possible “special purpose government,” selected by Renzi himself, will be ready.

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