– in Rome –
It was certainly a welcome change.
At the ceremony for the creation of new cardinals on Saturday in Saint Peter’s basilica, I was honoured to accompany the Canadian delegation, led by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. A few paces away, in the front pew as is customary on such occasions, was the Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Monti.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti
Opinions differ about the new Italian premier, but unlike his unlamented predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, his presence does not contaminate the moral hygiene of his environs, even when at church. Italians have a rather sanguine attitude about such things. They have a Catholic culture, whether they practise it or not, and they expect their leaders to publicly embrace it, whether they believe it or not. Some years back when I was a student in Rome, the city elected a communist mayor. A committed atheist, he was nevertheless present for papal Masses. The mayor of Rome does not have to believe in God, but he does have to be at Saint Peter’s for major feasts.
Yet so revolting had Mr. Berlusconi become, grossly deficient in both sexual morals and business ethics, and so manifestly incapable of acting for the common good, that he was an embarrassment wherever he went. His fellow European leaders were loathe even to meet him, and when he was belatedly expelled from the premiership last November, he had to head out the back door to avoid confronting the Italian people he had terribly failed in office.
Mr. Monti is a sober adult, brought in to salvage what can be saved from the wreckage of the septuagenarian adolescent he replaced. Italy’s debt crisis last year was as severe as elsewhere in Europe in some respects; in Monti’s first week the rate on Italian government bonds was north of 7%, the same level that pushed Greece, Ireland and Portugal into bailout territory.
So desperate was the crisis that the Italian president selected a prime minister from outside parliament – Monti was appointed a senator the day prior to being invited to form a government. In turn, Monti secured parliamentary support for a cabinet entirely unelected, with seven professors out of the 17 experts. It’s called governo tecnico here, as if somehow technical competence is incompatible with democratic election.
Perhaps it is in Italy and elsewhere, even in the American behemoth, where practical solutions to the national debt seem beyond the capacity of the political system to deliver. Mr. Monti’s government delivered an austerity budget in January, and despite predictable strikes from still-strong labour unions, the unelected technocrats enjoy high levels of popular support.
It would be as if more than a century and half of responsible government were abandoned in Canada, and parliament voted for the budget proposed by an unelected prime minister and a team of experts, none of whom had run for office. The popularity of the unelected cabinet here is a vote of non-confidence by Italians in their own recent history of choosing their own leaders, and raises serious questions about the future of European democracy.
Italy’s governo tecnico is not a sort of emergency measure; Mr. Monti fully intends to govern into 2013 without elections. That intended tenure is all the more remarkable given the brief tenure of dozens of Italian governments over the years. An unelected cabinet is not being proposed as a regrettable temporary circumstance, but a positive good for Italy.
For decades, the democratic deficit has been thought of in terms of an unelected European bureaucracy assuming powers previously held by elected national governments. The Greek crisis pushed that to the limit: The national government is essentially governing on terms dictated by European bankers and finance ministers. In Italy, the situation has gone even one step further, with the messiness of an elected government simply done away with altogether. It is a major departure from constitutional convention. Major Italian policy decisions are made by unelected ministers, in collaboration principally not with Italy’s elected deputies, but with appointed central bankers and Eurozone finance officials. It is unelected power at both the national and European level.
Nobody seems at all bothered by this, and perhaps that was inevitable after Belusconi made the idea of democratic legitimacy something of a laughingstock. Perhaps good government is more important than democratic government, though that premise has produced untold horrors in European history. But if that indeed is the argument, it is one that needs to be made explicitly, not simply fallen into by default – literally, as in regard to sovereign debt.