Commentary. John Phillips, the U.S. ambassador to Rome, said the failure of Matteo Renzi’s policy referendum would be bad for investments, angering both sides of the vote.

U.S. ambassador to Italy stirs resentment with referendum comment

The United States is calling on Italians to vote yes in the referendum. The statement, worthy of the Cold War era, would be a gross interference of a foreign power and ally if it weren’t so ridiculous, even just the idea of it. It’s also counterproductive.

The gaffe came from John Phillips, the U.S. ambassador in Rome, during a meeting on transatlantic relations organized by the American Studies Center. The “no” to the referendum, he said with great candor, “would be a step back for foreign investments in Italy.”

So Uncle Tom, engrossed in the stunning Hillary-Trump race, also has time to cheer Renzi?

What is certain is that they control the rating agencies (most recently, on Tuesday, Fitch managers spoke of “negative shock to the economy” if the referendum fails) and international investors, informed the ambassador.

Palazzo Chigi would not refuse the arrival of the diplomat’s endorsement, nor President Obama’s gift, an invitation to Mr. and Mrs. Renzi to a state dinner at the White House on Oct. 18 to mark the end of the term of the president most loved by Americans.

From a public relations point of view, it is manna from heaven for the tarnished Renzi, now in full campaign mode (the date of the vote, however, has not yet been decided).

Or at least that is the belief of Palazzo Chigi, which only revealed its disappointment after the outrage broke out. Ambassador Phillips — he hails from Friuli; his grandparents were called Filippi, but Americanized the surname as emigrants — is a big fan of Renzi’s friend Marco Carrai. Reports indicate Phillips attended Carrai’s now-famous wedding.

But Mr. Phillips-Filippi is primarily a businessman: His love for Italy is not an unselfish love. In Tuscany in 2001 he bought the entire ruined village of Finocchieto, in Siena, between Crete and the Val D’Orcia, for €10 million and turned it into a charming resort with 22 5-star suites, reported with squeals of delight in the luxury press.

He’s an appointed, not a career, diplomat — evident from the fact his style is anything but institutional. Obama dispatched him to the prestigious Italian posting in 2013, beating other candidates for the position thanks to his handsome support for the election campaign of the future first black president. For whom his wife was formerly an adviser.

Phillips is full of initiatives, and not all of them good. In 2014, he explained that Italy could not back away from the purchase of F-35s, offering reminders to our own government in a classroom discussion on the topic. “Italy is a parliamentary republic,” he had replied to Giampiero Scanu, head of the defence committee.

His excessive enthusiasm for Renzi sometimes ended up embarrassing the Italian premier. Such as when Phillips tried to compliment him by explaining that Matteo was so good that he reminded him of Reagan. Of course, he was not a Democratic president.

In a more recent gaffe, during an interview in Corriere della Sera, he said that in an (alleged) impending intervention in Libya, “Italy will provide up to about 5,000 soldiers.” This time his friend Renzi was obliged to deny the statement (“It’s not a video game”) and the ambassador to back away from his comments.

His endorsement Tuesday for the Italian referendum on behalf of the American people only broadened his opposition across the political spectrum.

“These are things you would not believe,” said a stunned former secretary of the Democratic Party Pierluigi Bersani. “What do they take us for?” Gianni Cuperlo, also of the Democratic Party, called it a “serious interference,” echoing Alessandro Di Battista: “We are allies, not subjects.”

Forza Italy has even brought the case into the House chamber to “stigmatize the singular words of Ambassador Phillips,” said Elio Vito. They have even indulged with “anti-American” the League’s Calderoli and former MSI Alemanno.

This time, despite the awkward silence of the State Department, the ambassador confirmed everything. Happy to have made ​​a gift to his best friend Matteo.

But is it really a gift? Foreigners’ endorsements tend not to have good results. Citizens don’t like their sense of independence tampered with.

In the summer of 2015, Angela Merkel and Matteo Renzi “advised” the Greeks to vote “yes” in the referendum proposed by Tsipras (which called for “no” vote) under penalty of the end of the world. In April the following year, that is, this year, Obama even flew to London to support Cameron in his battle against Brexit.

How those cases turned out is well known: bad. At least for the meddlers.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!