The Chilly Wind of Crisis

Europe’s technocrats might solve the economic conundrum, but they cannot restore trust between Europe and its citizens. We need a charismatic, democratic leader before illiberal and nationalistic forces gain ground.

A chilly wind blows over Rome. It’s not winter yet – this year, winter doesn’t seem willing to visit Italy. Instead, the cold is building in anticipation of the election in March 2013.

March marks the end of the current government’s term (under the leadership of Mario Monti: a government of technocrats that came to power with great promises and with the biggest political and social support any government of the last twenty years. When Silvio Berlusconi finally left his room in the prime minister’s residence, Italy feared the fallout of economic crisis and simultaneously hoped for positive change in the near future.

Pushed to the edge of the fiscal cliff, Italy finally displayed signs of unity: unions and entrepreneurs, journalists and readers, Left and Right – everyone rallied behind the president in supporting Monti’s “government of change.” Newspapers printed enthusiastic headlines, effective ads ran on TV, and even the Catholic Church – usually an organization that regards Italian politics with scepticism – explicitly endorsed the government.

During this year, the situation has improved. And also worsened.

The economic situation hasn’t been solved, but at least there is hope for a future recovery. But at the same time the distaste of the ordinary citizen for the political class has grown and turned into a rancorous bitterness directed against every political institution – national or international, Italian or European.

Tax increases and high unemployment aren’t even the primary drivers behind this bitterness. The lack of trust is predominantly driven by a failure to understand the complex economic forces that shape Italy’s path, and by the acute sense of powerlessness to influence one’s destiny in the political arena. Many people don’t understand why financial speculations halfway around the globe reduce their own quality of life and even endanger their survival. They don’t comprehend why the country suddenly finds itself in such deep trouble, despite the fact that nothing spectacular seems to have happened in Italy or in its proximity (the past decades, after all, were a time of peace). They can’t grasp why national debt would continue to rise despite tightened budgets and far-reaching social cuts.

Above all else, Italians don’t understand Europe anymore. Sometimes, the EU appears to be the source of all problems: nonsensical decrees emerge from deep inside the bowels of Brussels’ bureaucracy, from Germany and from the rest of the “wise” countries of Northern Europe. Most Italians only know these countries from their high school geography lessons. But suddenly their own fate seems inextricably linked to decisions made elsewhere in Europe. To Italians, current discussions about fiscal responsibility and sustainability often sound like attempts of cold Europe to inflict punishment on sunny Europe – like a clear affirmation of who holds power in the wannabe “union” of European states.

With the loss of confidence in Europe comes a loss of confidence and trust in Monti’s government, in spite of (or maybe because of) its clear successes on the European stage. The government is blamed for most economic ills: unions criticize it for the shortage of work. Entrepreneurs quarrel over tax rates. The press seizes on reports of social unrest. Politicians from both sides of the political spectrum join forces to reject any law proposed in parliament by members of the “technocratic” government.

Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” (to which one could at least react with irony or disgust) has been replaced by dull declarations filled with numbers that spark few replies. Over the past year, the separation between people and institutions, between the ordinary life of the citizens and the project for European rejuvenation, between everyday problems and international crises has grown wider. Finding a way to bridge the gap is increasingly difficult to imagine.

But is the Italian situation really uncommon in Europe? After all, the economic crisis has resurfaced old prejudices across the continent and sparked new ones. Germans seem arrogant and cruel, Mediterranean citizens seem lazy, immigrants from Eastern Europe are branded as illiterate thieves and bandits. Prejudiced populism is playing into the hands of two particular political illnesses that Europe has had to grapple with before: anarchy and fascism.

What unites the Indignados in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy (which is fortunately headed by Beppe Grillo, a professional comedian and not by a professional politician) and the Golden Dawn in Greece is that they all share the conviction that traditional politics is a hopeless endeavor, and that the European project has failed.

Can Europe win over its foes? Or has the game of European integration gone too far too quickly for the people of Italy, Greece, and Spain? An answer to these questions depends largely on a speedy economic recovery – which is nowhere in sight – and on a new credibility of the European project, which is even more difficult to imagine.

One of the darkest legacies of the economic crisis is the now widespread feeling among the people of Southern Europe that technocratic governments are not on their side, but on the side of the banks. The “government” in Brussels, filled with obscure bureaucrats that few European citizens can name, is no exception.

In the rancorous discussions of ordinary citizens, European and national governments are seen as two proponents of a single coordinated economic agenda with no interest in the life of common people.

A credible Europe requires a political leadership capable of rallying citizens around common visions and objectives. European politicians should communicate directly and without the intermediary role of national governments to convince the people of Europe that good choices are being made – choices that are in the interest of ordinary people, not in the interest of banks and economic institutions.

But could that ever happen? Two factors make it unlikely: the fear of a totalitarian leader and the language barrier. History has been such a harsh mistress to Europe that every political performance which is even slightly off the moderate center is easily labeled “populist” or “demagogic.” The ghosts of Hitler and Mussolini have been recalled from their graves plenty of times during the past few years. Language, in spite of all progress made towards English as the “lingua franca” of Europe, is still a barrier for most Europeans. It’s hard to trust someone who doesn’t speak your language.

But is a solution to these problems impossible? Not at all. Have we already forgotten that modern French democracy was shaped by a charismatic leader like Charles De Gaulle? True, De Gaulle presided over a period of internal and external war, but isn’t the current crisis more damaging to most people than the Algerian war of the 1950s? International managers are fluent in three or four languages – and most Swiss people have been since 1900 – so it is not difficult to imagine a new European Charles De Gaulle with the same gift.

If history teaches us something, it is that a long and enduring crisis nurtures strong leaders, who are sometimes democratic and usually not. Unless a charismatic and democratic European successor to De Gaulle emerges, national and non-democratic leaders will seize the space.

Technocratic governments are concentrating on improving the economy. At least they’re defusing one of two bombs. The ability to reshape Europe’s contract with its citizens is out of their reach. Waiting for the economy to pick up again, they brace themselves for a long, harsh, and windy winter.

Read more in this debate: Kilian Spandler, Juliane Mendelsohn, Roland Benedikter.

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