18 Dec 2012
December 18, 2012

Europe’s benign dictatorships

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Today’s FT (p.6, Paywall) reports Italy’s 87 year-old President Napolitano bemoaning the early end of prime minister Mario Monti’s administration and ‘blaming’ former prime minister Berslusconi’s supporters. There are huge issues at stake, he says; “not just a bundle of votes for this or that party”.  ‘Neutral’ Napolitano is basically making the case for benign dictatorship while expressing airy contempt for the democratic values he didn’t fight for during WW2.

Meanwhile, Italy’s civic elite, aware than Mr Monti has actually been doing a pretty sensible job as a benign dictator, is now trying to shoe-horn him into the role permanently.  When it comes to Italy, that’s certainly how the markets and Euro institutions prefer it.  But Italy’s unique, right?  Apart  from Greece, obviously, that goes without saying.  Oh, and Spain’s prime minister rarely bothers to attend parliament. But apart from that, everything’s pretty rosy on the Eurodemocracy front.  Ah, not so sure about some of those ‘new European countries? That’s another story….

Meanwhile, back at the Elysee Palace, President Hollande, when he’s not self-indulgently eating the rich, has been keen to stress how little power the UK has to alter EU agreements with; “I believe that treaties are meant to be complied with….Europe is not a Europe in which you can take back competences. It is not Europe a la carte.”

Why is it that European leaders are so apparently keen to hinder democracy while helping the putative ‘out’ campaign in the event that David Cameron accepts that the same clarity of choice he (rightly) demands of a Scottish referendum will need to apply to a UK one?  Perhaps they like the idea of complete domination by Germany?  But that can’t be right – president Napolitano sort of contested such dominance as a member of wartime Italy’s anti-fascist grouping, admittedly as part of a short personal journey between his successive membership of the Italian Young Fascists and the Italian Communist Party.  While of course France is justly famous for its comedy restaurants during La Resistance.  So if not an enthusiasm for German dominance, then what?

Well, two reasons occur to me, although I imagine there are others.

First, for most EU nations the politics of the EU is central to domestic politics – politicians work it for all they can get and tell their constituents; whereas we in the UK try to keep such ‘Eurotrickery’ at the margins (See Janan Ganesh, today’s FT, p.15, for an excellent discussion around how the UK is actually very effective in Europe when we want to be).  Second, most EU leaders don’t seem to stop to think if their stupid pot-shots at the UK might actually help bring about the break-up of Europe as they know it.

Is the Pope a Catholic?  Yes, indeed he is although many of his fellow members of the Hitler Youth were Lutherans and whatnot.  This stuff is hardly going to get me a job as a comedy scriptwriter, but in the event of a UK referendum, such sentiments will have their potency.  Any failure to acknowledge how our cultural instincts are often different from other parts of Europe will be keenly noticed by voters. At present, around a third of voters want to come out of Europe, a third want ‘some’ powers repatriated, a third want the status quo (oddly, similar figures apply to Scotland’s referendum).  In the event of an in-out vote, that middle third will decide.  Will we see ‘Up Your’s Delors’ revisited by parts of the media during a UK referendum?  You bet we will.  And quite right, too, because that’s how a lot of people, particularly the older ones who vote, see things.

We might laugh at the japery of Berlusconi and perhaps even think a bit of sensible dictatorship has its place in those hotter European places.  European leaders might think it handy to bash the Brits in return for some easy local plaudits.  But we should all be careful what we wish for.