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Italy’s Populists Want to Close Stores on Sundays

Chiara Albanese and JJerold Colten

May 2019

The idea is to give workers time to spend with their kids and go to church.

Since forming an uncomfortable coalition government a year ago, Italy’s conservative League and anti-establishment Five Star Movement have found themselves at odds on everything from infrastructure and immigration to regulations on prostitution. There’s one thing, though, they agree on: shuttering stores on Sundays.

In April, Parliament began debating a law aimed at “returning the weekend to families.” Five Star has advocated shutting stores some 45 days a year. The League is proposing a milder version, easing restrictions in the runup to Christmas and other holiday periods. But they both say the laws would reinforce long-standing traditions such as Sunday lunch at home while giving retail workers a needed break and letting would-be shoppers go to Mass. “Town centers are deserted as families spend their day of rest at the mall,” says Andrea Dara, a League lawmaker working to find a compromise.

The two parties rode to power by tapping into constituencies with little in common: pro-business northerners and young, often unemployed southerners. One thing the two groups share? They’d both be hurt by restrictions on Sunday shopping, according to Istituto Cattaneo, an economic research group in Bologna. The Five Star proposal would shrink gross domestic product by 0.5 percent—€9.4 billion ($10.6 billion)—and cost almost 150,000 jobs, the institute said in an April report. That would reduce tax revenue by as much as €2 billion, undercutting government efforts to reboot an economy that’s predicted to see virtually no growth this year, with unemployment stuck at almost 11 percent. “It’s obvious that the plan under discussion isn’t the right way to save commerce,” says Carlo Rienzi, chairman of Codacons, a consumer-rights group. “I hope these proposals will be abandoned.”

Other than in Germany, which requires the bulk of stores to shut their doors on Sunday, most Europeans can shop every day of the week. But blue laws have considerable resonance among the Continent’s new right wing, and two other countries ruled by populists have sought to reinstitute bans. Hungary tried it in 2015 but backed down a year later after consumers balked and an opposition party called for a referendum on the issue. Poland a year ago ordered that stores be shuttered two Sundays a month. Next year the ban is scheduled to be extended to almost every Sunday, but it’s under review after grousing by businesses. Tesco Plc and Biedronka, the country’s biggest retailer, have said they’ve been hurt by the rule. “Keeping shops closed on Sunday is like squeezing toothpaste back into the tube,” says Davide Rossi, an attorney in Milan and a director of Aires, a trade group of retailers. The idea “goes against free trade, kills competition, and contradicts constitutional values.”

Italy long followed the Christian custom of largely shutting down on the Sabbath, but in 2011 the government loosened the rules with a law dubbed Salva Italia (Save Italy) aimed at bolstering retailers in the wake of the financial crisis. Proponents at the time said opening stores on Sunday makes it easier for working people to get their shopping done. But some left-leaning labor groups and far-right conservatives called it a burden on workers and families. “Parents can’t spend even a single day with their kids anymore because they work in a shop all week,” Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio said last September when introducing the idea of a ban.

In Rome a parliamentary commission is holding hearings on the issue. The proposal getting the most traction would require stores to close on 26 Sundays a year, plus holidays. But many questions remain: Will the ban apply even to smaller stores? Sunday shopping is likely to be allowed in historic city centers, but should those privileges be extended to malls on the periphery? Will beach destinations be exempted in the summer? Ski resorts in winter? Working out the details is likely to take months, which is fine with opponents—and even the many Italians who remain undecided on the issue. “As an employee, I’d be totally in favor of closures,” says Sharon Farina, a clerk in a Rome perfume shop. “But as a consumer, I’m happy to see stores open.” —With Maciej Martewicz

BOTTOM LINE - Most Europeans can shop every day of the week, but blue laws are gaining traction among right-wing parties, with some populist governments reinstituting bans.

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