MILAN (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to Italy was at the center of a political firestorm Wednesday after warning that the defeat of an upcoming Italian referendum on constitutional changes would hurt Italy's chances of attracting American investment.
The vote has become a make-or-break judgment on the government of Premier Matteo Renzi, who has said the constitutional changes are needed to end Italy's chronic political instability. Renzi has staked his administration's survival on passage, which polls suggest is not at all certain.
Lawmakers backing a "no" vote sharply criticized Ambassador John Phillips' comments as interference in Italy's internal affairs. Some called for his removal.
Even the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, stepped into the fray Wednesday to insist on the sovereignty of Italian voters to decide the referendum's outcome.
Phillips made the remarks at a panel discussion at the Rome-based Center for American Studies on Tuesday. He told Italy's foreign minister and other assembled guests that political stability was crucial to securing American investment.
While saying the choice belonged to Italian voters, Phillips said the United States thinks the proposed changes "offer real hope and real opportunity for stability of government going ahead.
"All I can say from the American perspective is if it fails, those American companies that are coming to Italy — and Italy ranks right now eighth in investment in EU where it should be third or even second — it will be a big step backward in terms of attracting more foreign investment."
The U.S. Embassy said the ambassador's comments were in line with U.S. support of Renzi's reforms.
The referendum, scheduled for later this year, would greatly reduce the power of the Senate, abolish the provinces and give the central government control of some policy areas that now lie with the regions.
Renzi has said he would resign if the referendum fails, further motivating opposition forces to rally against the measure try to take advantage of widespread popular anger at slow economic growth, corruption scandals and the government's performance.
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