Europe's democracy problem
No wonder there is a disconnect between government and the governed. European electoral systems are too remote from the people, and this suits Brussels just fine. There's little likelihood of change. Europe has given up on democracy
The Italian Christmas officially begins on 20th December which was a Wednesday last year so many left work on the 15th. It ends at Epiphany, a Saturday, so the offices are full again on 8th January, workers blinking into the New Year light after three and a half weeks of hibernation.
The nation returns to work to the news of an improved economy, albeit only marginally. The football transfer market is open, but not many Italian players like working abroad and not many teams have foreign players.
Then there is the musical festival in San Remo, then on 4th March, a general election.
The last time there was a vote in which the leader of the main party became Prime Minister was 2008, since when we have had five prime ministers, four of them ‘appointed’. This is not, as the Italians are aware, a good look.
This last year has not in truth been great for European elections generally. The two countries with first past the post systems produced winners, France and the UK (just). Otherwise, Dutch elections in March produced a government which needed a four party coalition.
Austria as usual produced a coalition, this time between the centre-right and the far-right which in more normal times would have caused sanctions to be imposed by the European Commission in Brussels. Right now, they have other things on their plate and have not, of course, been elected themselves.
German elections in September have still not produced a result. As I write, they are talking, and it is possible that those who voted for Mr Schulz to get Mrs Merkel out, might see their vote used instead to keep her in. Equally, there might be another election.
Italy is not going to disappoint on 4th March: the political system is in flux and the recently cobbled together electoral law reminds you that the word fiasco is Italian. If your party or group get 39.9 percent of the vote they have to form a coalition; if they get 40 percent they are handed enough free seats to give them a working majority.
Don’t forget, all these coalitions are formed after the vote. The electorate will have had no say on who they are governed by.
Right now the talk in Italy is as to whether Berlusconi’s coalition can reach the 40 percent threshold. Bill Emmott, who as editor of the Economist wrote in 2001 that Berlusconi was unfit to govern, now believes he could be the saviour of Italy. That means saving the nation from Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star movement, currently led by 31 year old Luigi di Maio.
Dear oh dear. Europe desperately needs level headed men and women, secure in their position, discussing the issues of the day such as the peripheral economies, the Russian threat, defence and immigration. But they are not, and some are beginning to wonder whether the extensive use of proportional representation has something to do with it.
When Belgium went for more than a year and a half without an elected government, reporters from all over the world went there to find out how they were coping in this extraordinary situation. Fairly well, was the answer: most of the laws came from Brussels and people were beginning to think maybe they didn’t need a government after all.
This is extremely dangerous. Mrs Merkel, for example, has felt quite relaxed about wasting three months with Germany having no new government. And of course Brussels is quite happy: it doesn’t much like nation states and it positively loathes new ideas, unless they conform to the correct pattern (further integration, more Europe, more bureaucrats).
The people feel removed from their rulers. Under the commonly used party list system there is no one you can call your MP, there to protect your interests. The parliamentarians feel beholden, not to the people for electing them, but to whoever put them sufficiently high up the list to get them on to the gravy train.
Under the German mixed system, I remember the late Helmut Kohl, who had been found diverting public money to his party, being rejected by his constituents, only to pop up again in parliament under the list system. In many countries MPs, effectively appointed by their patrons, enjoy immunity from prosecution.
Add to this that often parties are funded by the state and you have an institutionalised racket far removed from the people. It needs to change, but my guess is there are too many people benefitting from it for it ever to do so. Europe has given up on democracy.
Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here
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