Posted by: Andy Reinhardt on November 17, 2011
The European debt crisis has played havoc on the continent’s politicians. This year alone four countries have seen their governments fall—Ireland, Portugal, Greece, and Italy—the last two “without a shove from voters,” reported Bloomberg News yesterday in a story about European technocrats. Spain is expected to join their ranks on Sunday when pre-election polls show the governing Socialist party is likely to be defeated by the center-right People’s Party under Mariano Rajoy.
While the Irish, Portuguese, and (probable) Spanish government transitions were driven by the will of the people, the Greek and Italian situations had a decidedly more back-room quality. In both cases, the sitting prime ministers—George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi, respectively—lost the support of their allies or coalitions and were forced to resign. Both were replaced by appointed temporary prime ministers, Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti, respectively.
The acting leaders have, in turn, hand-picked cabinets filled with insiders. Greece’s new government includes many holdovers from the Papandreou regime, while Monti’s team is made up of civil servants, academics, and business leaders—and not a single elected member of the Italian parliament. These select groups face the daunting task of pushing through unpopular reforms and reducing debt levels to stem the bond-market death spirals that felled their predecessors.
Of course, appointed governments aren’t very democratic, but that’s partly the point. “They’re there not just because they’re technocrats, but because it was easier to ask independent personalities to construct political consensus,” European Commission President Jose Barroso said Nov. 14 in Paris, as quoted by Bloomberg News. “The level of hostility between different political forces is enormous.”
In other words, installing non-elected governments may have been the only way to force action on the crises facing Greece and Italy. Government by a technocratic elite isn’t uncommon in Europe: As Bloomberg’s Greg Viscusi writes in the article cited above: “The appointment of prime ministers in Athens and Rome to push through unpopular austerity measures echoes efforts in the past five decades by European leaders to control policy-making when democratic means fall short.”
Viscusi goes on to note:
Progress toward building—and now saving—the 27-nation union has rested largely with the ruling elites. Decisions are taken at meetings of ministers from national governments, and the commission, its executive arm, is appointed by those governments.
Does this speak poorly of democracy in Europe? Yes and no. Both Papademos and Monti have vowed to hand off to elected governments within a few months: in Greece’s case, as soon as February, 2012, and sometime next spring in Italy. So these aren’t exactly open-ended mandates or coups d’état. What’s more, actions taken by the Papademos and Monti administrations still must be approved by the elected parliaments of Greece and Italy. Yet it’s a measure of the state of Greek and Italian politics that to effect change, leadership had to be removed to the hands of technocrats.
Britain’s right-leaning Spectator had this to say about Italy in a blog post today:
The political parties are opting for a technocratic government because they dare not instigate the reforms they know are required. They want to rule, but not govern—and a technocratic interlude allows them to do that. Cowardice? Yes. An indictment of Italy’s politics. Yes. Undemocratic? No.
It’s interesting to consider Italy’s situation as the deadline approaches for the “Supercommittee” of U.S. legislators to devise a budget compromise or see automatic spending cuts kick in. It may be that the polarized—and paralyzed—politics of the U.S. aren’t a whole lot different. There’s no chance the U.S. government would be replaced by a caretaker administration that forced compromise, but leaving budget decisions to statute doesn’t exactly represent the highest ideals of people power.