With all that is going on with the wild and unpredictable U.S. election season, it is easy to forget that a potentially more cataclysmic campaign is underway in Italy over in Europe. At stake is the future of Italy in the European Union. More than this, the whole future of the European Union project is actually on the ballot.
December 4th is the day when Italians will vote whether or not to back the significant constitutional reforms on which Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has staked his political future. More important than the actual reforms is what will happen if Renzi loses the referendum. You could call this vote Brexit on steroids for the sake of the European Union.
Politicians across the spectrum in Italy have joined in unprecedented unity against the referendum in the past weeks and months. Last week the former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti announced he is against the referendum. Long time Italian Premier Silvio Berlesconi is also campaigning against it. All the opposition party leaders in Italy are as well.
So far, analysts have been mostly looking at opinion polls to try to decide if Italy will really go against the prime minister and trigger the resignation he has promised if he fails. The problem with a general election now is that opinion polls show that opposition leader Beppe Grillo, head of the populist Five Star Movement, will win the majority in parliament and become the next prime minister of Italy if Renzi is forced to resign.
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Grillo has promised a referendum on continued use of the euro currency in Italy. Polls again show that most Italians are in favor of leaving the euro zone to go back to the Italian lira. This would mean Italy withdrawing from the currency union of the block, if not outright from the European Union itself.
Especially this soon after Brexit, the EU can not afford to suffer a core member (with the third largest economy left in the block) choosing to abandon the European project now. Other countries would likely choose to follow suit, and the entire fifty year project in Europe could easily unwind.
How likely is this to happen? The Euro zone banking system keeps track of inflows and outflows of Euro currency from one country to another. Italy’s central bank has been recording a lot of liabilities to the Euro system as deposits leave the country lately.
By the end of September, these represented 354 billion euros, an amount that is 118 billion higher from the same time last year and 78 billion higher since the end of May. While the flow of money leaving Italy for mostly Germany is not yet as big as during the European sovereign debt crisis in 2012, it is substantial and growing.
One of the main explanations for why money is leaving Italy in such significant amounts is that people do not want to risk their Italian Euros being converted to Italian lira. This could realistically happen if populist leader Beppe Grillo wins the national elections on the back of a failed referendum vote.
You should be concerned about the fate of the European Union, even though it may seem far away. It is the largest economic and trading block in the world. Its major banks are interconnected with American financial institutions on several levels. An economic catastrophe like a major unwinding in European economic integration means a severe blow to the world and also American economies.
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