April 24, 2014
For the Herald
Backroom politics make Renzi the third unelected Italian prime minister in a row
THE HAGUE – As if snatched from the fervid night-time dreamscape of a Hollywood script-writer, an English seaside restaurant this week morphed into a scene from the Day of Reckoning. Lashed by wind from the incontinent Atlantic, the shingle on the beach in Milford on Sea was lifted into the air and propelled with uncommon excitation towards the sitting diners. Windows shattered and sea water flooded the place. Emergency services rushed in, only to find themselves under satanic assault from a levitation of coastal pebbles.
Moments such as these have not been uncommon in Britain’s wettest period for 250 years, making up two months of unrelenting gales, downpours and flooding. It is well known that the British like to moan about their well-moistened isle. But on this occasion, with historical records surpassed, and with other parts of the planet suffering their own climatic purgatory — Polar in the US mid-west, Amazonian in Argentina — the proof of climate change is being presented as never before.
And this, in the European political climate, generates an oddity all of its own. In Britain, the principal authorities on climate change, a number of leading Tories, and now the Labour party leader, Ed Miliband, acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. But the Labour response, which is to seek out cross-party parliamentary backing to turn climate change into a matter of national security, does not seem any way near the high bar set by perturbations in the geo-karma.
It is pretty obvious that tackling this issue will require a global, coordinated social and economic shift in which every citizen, willing or not, is implicated. Most likely, it would cause deep and painful wrenching in a growth model — andby extension, a pattern of industrialized life — based on the readiness to exploit nature. No one national government, least of all one in Europe, is in a position to do this on its own, or without the commitment of most of its population.
However, if we are to judge by the response to the euro crisis, the primary instinct of Europe’s leaders has beento huddle together somewhere near the liquor cabinet. Insiders are separated from outsiders. And the substance of the method, implemented above all in the southern countries while the north looks on approvingly, has been to hide between the inevitability of the task in hand, play by an antiquated rule-book, hit the weakest hard, and shun wherever possible excessive contact with the electorate.
The ascent to power in the past few days of Matteo Renzi, set to become the new Italian prime minister at the age of 39 despite limited experience as mayor of Florence, may be regarded as the distant death-rattle of this genre of backroom politics. Renzi, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, usurped his colleague and outgoing Prime Minister Enrico Letta in an internal party coup, thereby earning himself a rare accolade: he is the third unelected Italian prime minister in a row.
Since the last elected leader was one Silvio Berlusconi, we may be forgiven for regarding the ballotbox as a suicidal method for governing Italy, and prefer the rational coldness of the elite to the libidinal befuddlement of the public. According to sociologist Gian Maria Fara, quoted in El País, “we Italians live in the comfortable position of consumers of the here and now. We only attend to the day to day. This has become a culture of TV advertisements and slogans. Talk shows have destroyed politics, and converted politicians into sad caricatures who are able to liquidate with a few choice jokes matters of the greatest importance.”
This marvellous description may sound familiar to some readers in other contexts. It is incisive, palpably true on occasion, and a perfect justification for the sort of elite management of a confused flock of citizens that has emanated from the European Union from its inception. Since the onset of the financial crisis, this approach has accounted for the defenestration of Berlusconi in favour of Mario Monti in late 2011 — a technocrat’s coup, driven by the heights of Italy’s economic and political establishmentas detailed last week by the journalist Alan Friedman in the Financial Times. Spain placed eternal budget limits in its Constitution almost overnight. Greece held and re-held elections until the desired stabilising result was achieved.
There is no need to regard these practices as restricted to southern Europe in crisis mode. Thatcher was overturned by her own Cabinet in 1991. Both of France’s Socialist presidents, including the current incumbent, have changed economic course mid-term, without any popular vote to force the issue. Renzi, for his part, promises novelty and freshness even as he comes to power with his hand still bloodied from the dagger handle. His limited inclination to go to the polls, meanwhile, seems to jar with his reformist energies. “The path of elections is charming and attractive,” he told his party’s committee last week, “but at the moment we don’t have electoral norms to guarantee governability. Elections would be worthwhile as a form of purification, but would not serve to resolve the country’s problems.”
With hindsight, the rule of the wise may be seen as justified: Europe now appears to have embarked on a tepid recovery, even if jobs remain thin on the ground. At best, this is a tribute to technocrats and politicians who understood what was required to save a status quo that most citizens were afraid to abandon. But if climate tumult really is upon us, then the divisiveness, elitism and detachment of the people who saved the euro would seem to be wholly inadequate. For new weather cannot be changed back into old without first talking seriously with those consumers of the here and now.