Matteo Renzi, between the quest for “Europe’s soul” and the “assault of technocracy”

lindsethProf. Peter Lindseth

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).

The idea that EU citizens constitute “a people” (rather than “peoples”) is of course a bold claim—that is, if you take it as a description of the current state of European political culture. I take it, however, as aspirational. It is a statement of what Renzi believes Europe must become (“a community, a people, not a geographical expression”); otherwise, as Renzi pointed out, integration amounts to little more than an exercise in “unit[ing] our bureaucracies.” And as he continued: “I can assure that we Italians have enough of our own bureaucracy. Either we recover a strong, deep identity together or we lose the challenge we face.”

Renzi did not engage in all this high-minded rhetoric for its own sake. Rather, he had a specific policy agenda in mind: to escape the austerity that has been the cornerstone of the response to the Eurozone crisis so far; to add flexibility to the interpretation of the Stability and Growth Pact; and perhaps, even more ambitiously, to augment the fiscal capacity of the supranational level—perhaps through Eurobonds—in order to help counter-act the asymmetric economic and financial effects of monetary union. As Renzi’s rhetorical flourishes all suggest, however, the lack of a robust, shared identity at the supranational level in Europe is a barrier to institutional change that might permit policies with real macro-economic significance in the Eurozone—not the mere one percent of European GDP that is the current EU budget.

The problem is that fiscal capacity of such macroeconomic importance still remains fundamentally national, in the hands of national parliaments, despite the supranational discipline to which national parliaments have subjected themselves. Without autonomous supranational fiscal capacities—and more importantly without the autonomous democratic and constitutional identity to support them—the central instrument used to pay for the Eurozone crisis has necessarily been national austerity, combined with national pre-commitments to fiscal discipline enforced by supranational institutions. Conveniently, this combination of national austerity and supranational surveillance/discipline has to date made little or no redistributive demands on “Europe” as a collectivity. All essential costs—political and economic—have been and continue to be borne internally, by the individual states. This may well change if the crisis once again intensifies. But the current approach ultimately relies on, and in fact validates, the democratic and constitutional legitimacy of national institutions as a central foundation of the European project.

It is this reality that Renzi apparently would like to transcend, by exhorting Europe to find its “soul,” “the meaning of [its] life together,” and a “strong, deep identity” based on a “common destiny and common values.” What Renzi seems to be seeking is a transformation of nineteenth-century nationalism’s emergent “large-scale solidarity”—something that would obviously be so crucial to the welfare state in the twentieth century—into a supranational reality for the twenty-first century. And without that sense of intra-European solidarity, genuine fiscal capacity at the EU level (whether in the form of Eurobonds or otherwise) is impossible.


Lurking in the background here is, of course, the increasingly important role of supranational technocracy in the Eurozone crisis: the European Central Bank (ECB) along with its fellow members of the “troika,” the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The increasing disconnect between the supranational technocracy and national political life creates the danger of a kind of Weberian nightmare involving supranational technocratic domination without the possibility of any kind of legitimation via representative government in a historically recognizable sense. Matteo Renzi seems very much alive to this concern. In recent remarks Renzi spoke of a Europe at risk of becoming home simply for “bureaucracies and banks.” “It serves no purposes to share a currency,” he insisted, “if you do not share a destiny. We must defend Europe from the assault of technocracy.”

Again, I know as scholars we are not supposed to pay much attention to political speeches. However, as I bring this lecture to a close, I am struck that this sort of rhetoric would likely have also caught the attention of no less a scholar than Max Weber. For Weber, the very purpose of the national parliament was as a forum for developing political leaders capable of projecting national power and resisting the claims of technocracy. On both fronts, Matteo Renzi has his work cut out for him (not least in reforming Italian political institutions, much less those in Europe). But if Max Weber were alive today, I think he would be following Renzi’s rhetoric and political trajectory quite closely. Renzi’s efforts may well serve as a test case for whether such political leadership can successfully emerge from today’s national parliaments, in order to counteract new forms of technocratic domination in the very challenging context of post-crisis European integration.

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