Two recent pieces in the FT (here and here) brought home the magnitude of the task currently confronting Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as he seeks to reform a sclerotic domestic system and yet ward off complaints from supranational technocrats unsatisfied with the pace of change. The Renzi challenge can be seen as a case study in whether and to what extent charismatic political leadership in a national democracy can successfully achieve its goals in the face entrenched bureaucratic power both national and supranational. In that regard, readers may find of interest remarks I delivered last month at the Summer School on “Parliamentary Democracy in Europe” at the LUISS Guido Carli School of Government in Rome. My focus was Renzi’s recent speech before the European Parliament on 2 July 2014, viewed in relation to statements made before the Italian Chamber of Deputies and elsewhere around the same time. Renzi’s line of rhetoric on Europe—notably his quest for Europe’s “soul” and “the meaning of [its] life together”—provided a point of entry into a broader set of reflections on the current state of the integration process, its socio-political / socio-cultural underpinnings, as well as the challenge of reconciling (national) democracy and (largely but not exclusively supranational) technocracy. The full remarks can be found here (including citations), while below is an excerpt.
Renzi began [his speech of July 2d in Strasbourg] by offering congratulations to the members of the EP for their recent election. He spoke of the “great responsibility” of the EP to bring “trust and hope” (fiducia e speranza) to European institutions. But note what he did not say: He did not say that EP brought “democratic legitimacy” to European policy-making. He did say that it was “only right and politically just” for the European Council to respect “the results of the recent electoral campaign” and hence the EP’s “prerogatives” in the choice of the new Commission president. But he avoided using the language of EU “democracy” to describe this step.
Of course, I have no special access to the workings of Renzi’s mind. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to say that he deliberately avoided the language of democratic legitimation with regard to the EP. The prior week, in a speech before the Italian Chamber of Deputies, Renzi stated: “Those who imagine that the democratic ‘gap’ in Europe will be overcome simply by the appointment of Juncker as President of the European Commission are living on Mars.” In that earlier speech he went on to describe not only the low turnout in the European elections but also the significant percentage of the vote that went to parties hostile to the European project. From there he segued to a theme that would be central to his speech in Strasbourg the following week: “It is not enough to have a currency in common, or a President in common, or a source of funding in common.” Rather, what is needed is for Europe to “accept the idea that we have a destiny in common and values in common.” In his speech the following week before the EP, Renzi elaborated: “The real challenge confronting our continent is to find the soul of Europe, to find the profound meaning of our being together” (my emphasis).
Now I know as scholars we are not supposed to pay much attention to these sorts of rhetorical flourishes by politicians. Nevertheless, I found this entire line of discussion fascinating. Perhaps Renzi did not intend it but his reference to finding Europe’s “soul” and “the meaning of our being together” brought to mind a similar line of thinking in Ernest Renan’s famous 1882 lecture, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” (“What is a Nation?”). According to Renan: “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle…. [It is] the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories [but also] present-day consent, the desire to live together … [It is] a daily plebiscite ….” In speaking of the current ills afflicting the EU, did Renzi intentionally mean to invoke this paean to liberal nationalism of the nineteenth century? After all, isn’t European integration supposed to be a “post-national” project, something designed to transcend the legacy and evils of nationalism?
Perhaps Renzi was not invoking Renan specifically, but there is much in the speech to suggest that Renzi would like nothing less than for the integration project to emulate at least some aspects of nationalism. Most importantly, Renan associated nationalism with a “large-scale solidarity”—something that Renzi might love to see replicated on a European scale in response to the Eurozone crisis.
The clearest indication was Renzi’s invocation of the famously dismissive observation of Metternich to describe Italy in 1847, in which Metternich asserted that Italy was nothing more than “a geographical expression.” For Renzi, today’s Europeans must demonstrate that that Europe is something more than a “geographical expression.” According to Renzi: “There will be no space for Europe if we remain only a dot on Google Maps. We are a community, a people, we are not a geographical expression—to use the phrase applied to Italy by a great Austrian statesman of the nineteenth century” (Metternich was not specifically named). Continue reading