Pier Domenico Tortola: Having lived and worked in Italy for many years, you know the country and its politics quite well. What are your thoughts on the upcoming constitutional referendum and its predicted effects? Do you share the view that a victory of the “no” side may trigger a new European crisis?
Yves Mény: The tones of this referendum campaign are dramatic, but what will happen will eventually depend very much on how the markets react on Monday—something which is very difficult to predict. What I would say, however, is that should the referendum fail, the impression will remain that Italy is a country unable to reform itself unless it is on an abyss in which the future of the entire country and its people is at stake—and often only through technocracy. So this referendum can be interpreted as being not only about the planned reform itself, but about Italy’s governance more broadly conceived.
PDT: In your work you have often talked about the need for political leadership in Europe. Many see Matteo Renzi as trying to provide such leadership. But the latter is somewhat schizophrenic, at least as far as the EU is concerned: on the one hand, Renzi periodically picks fights with Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and the Brussels bureaucracy, to court Eurosceptic voters. On the other, he presents himself as part of a new leadership for the European project, one that is more Keynesian and pro-growth than the current German-led ordoliberal setup.
We now have a kind of “Germanic imperium”, based on stabilty and economic success. It is quite difficult for countries such as France or Italy, with their weak economic outlook, to fight the ordoliberal policies that Germany imposes on everybody else in Europe.
YM: In many ways Renzi’s leadership is stronger outside Italy than within the country. In Italy, Renzi has to face a historical and cultural aversion to strong leadership, which comes from the country’s experience with fascism. Italians tend to prefer the rather long, and sometimes cumbersome, process of consensus-building rather than being led by a strong person who “shows the way”. Outside of Italy Renzi is, in my view, well perceived as somebody providing impulse and refusing to adopt the low profile that Italian governments have usually held for the past five decades of so. That aspect is quite appreciated.
The problem, however, is that today’s Europe is quite different from the Europe of ten or fifteen years ago. We now have a kind of “Germanic imperium”, based on stabilty and economic success. It is quite difficult for countries such as France or Italy, with their weak economic outlook, to fight the ordoliberal policies that Germany imposes on everybody else in Europe. Italy, in particular, also suffers from the traditional tensions and contradictions of its politics: it is extremely difficult for any other European government to be sure that the position the Italians take today will stay the same in six months’ time. The strenght of Germany, in this sense, is that of having had much more governmental continuity than Italy. That makes a difference as far as long-term commitments are concerned. Italy does have a number of longstanding foreign policy principles, such as the support for integration, for NATO, and a concern for security in the Mediterranean. In spite of this, the perception by outsiders is often one of governance instability.
PDT: Does all this make you pessimistic as to the possibility of structural changes at the European level? In the past you have written about the need for Europe to go forward in its integration, in order not to disintegrate. But what we have seen so far is, for the most part, partial and layered institutional solutions to the crisis: a banking union that is not as supranational as many asked, a European Stability Mechanism (ESM) that is limited in its capabilities, and so on.
The only hope is that Frau Merkel might decide to use her last term in office to push an ambitious reform programme for the Union. But given the past experience I doubt that will happen.
YM: I have not changed my mind about the Union’s need to change. Actually, I was quite pleased to read Joseph Stiglitz’s recent book, which is very critical about the setting up of the euro and the way the common currency has developed. The continent has only two options: either more or less Europe. Either the euro is accompanied by political integration to make the euro compatible with the many differences existing among European economies—this includes a bigger EU budget and measures of supranational solidarity—or one should probably just get rid of it. As is now, the euro is a source of unemployment and slow or no growth, which privileges Germany to the detriment of peripheral countries. I am not an economist but I am glad to see that some economists now believe that the current situation is unsustainable.
Unfortunately, the social and political forces at work are pushing in an anti-European direction. Imagine to wake up tomorrow with the “no” side winning in Italy, a right-wing Austrian president and a French president on a sovereignist position—who, moreover, would be seen as a blessing because at least Le Pen was not elected. The situation is not too good. The only hope, in my view, is that Frau Merkel might decide to use what I think will be her last term in office to push an ambitious reform programme for the Union. But given the past experience I doubt that will happen.
PDT: Is differentiated integration—whereby an avant-garde of member states proceeds to integrate further, possibly indicating the way for the others—the only possible way to imagine a deeper EU in the future?
YM: Differentiation will be probably unavoidable because there are just too many different views in Europe. I often cite a French book that has nothing to do with integration but which has an evocative title, going along the lines of “a single bed with many dreams”. Unfortunately, the European bed is indeed single, but with 28 different views on how to construct—or not construct—the Union. The question, however, is who should compose the “core Europe” in a scenario of differentiated integration. Even within the Eurozone ther are extremely divergent views and political tensions. Take Ireland, for instance: a committed European country which nonetheless has strong historical, economic and social ties to the UK, and whose national interests therefore are intertwined with the British ones. Sometimes you wonder who will cut the Gordian knot of (differentiated) European integration, and for the time being i do not see anybody capable of doing it.
The scale of referendums needs to be consistent with their effects. What we see today is a dysfunctional situation in which a referendum in one country has effects that go well beyond its borders. In a normal federal system, like the United States, this would not happen.
PDT: An alternative solution for leaving the EU’s current impasse might be to act from the bottom up, trying to strengthen European democracy. Do you see this as a viable way to bypass Europe’s cirrent intergovernmental problems. And if so, how to build supranational democracy concretely?
YM: Unfortunately, we have no blueprint for building democracy supranationally, for all existing democracies are Westphalian, i.e. built on the traditional nation state. What we could do, however, is to build European democracy little by little, through trial and error. In doing this our options are limited. One of these is to go towards more direct democracy, accepting a trend that we see everywhere in Europe. But the scale of referendums needs to be consistent with their effects. What we see today is a dysfunctional situation in which a referendum in one country has effects that go well beyond its borders: think of Brexit, or the 2005 French referendum on the European constitution, which killed the latter for all the remaining member states. In a normal federal system, like the United States, this would not happen.
Referendums can, on the other hand, be an interesting way to improve democracy at the EU level. For instance we could conceive that every five years, at the time of the European elections, a few big questions and initiatives are presented to the entire European citizenry, for them to vote on all together. This would, of course, not solve the EU’s democratic deficit by itself, but would introduce more legitimacy in the EU system by giving people the right to have their direct say on a few things. Take trade, for instance: today’s trade deals are no longer about tariffs and duties but about standards and regulations that affect citizens directly, but which often become clear only several years after the a deal is signed, so that nobody, in the end, can fully be held responsible. I do not think it is still possible or acceptable to let the Commission discuss these matters behind closed doors, without parliaments and the broader public being aware of what is going on.
We need to tackle the negative consequences of a globalization that serves only the interests of a few countries or groups of people. Let us not forget that the first wave of globalization in modern times started around the 1870s and ended in 1914 with World War I.
PDT: Your idea of regularly posing some big questions to European voters is stimulating. My worry, however, is that fights relating to these referendums would continue to be structured around national lines unless there are have effective institutions for transnational mobilization in place, whether they are Europarties or something similar. These intermediate structures should be there not just to structure mobilization but also to promote better and clearer public debates when it comes to more technical issues—such as the trade deals that you mentioned—so that voters are enabled to make informed decisions.
YM: I agree that we are facing the deep risk of the elimination of any kind of mediation from politics. This is a dream for most populist movements, but looks more and more like a nightmare. But in order to tame the populist monster you have to introduce a bit of populism in the system. In the United States the populist movement was very powerful at the end of the 19th century, when it managed to introduce very important reforms such as primary elections, the income tax, referendums in some states, etc. Yet they never managed to get their candidate elected. This has changed with Trump, who is an expression of this new populist upsurge. The situation is serious, and the democratic resistance to populism needs to transform itself in order to better address the challenge. Doing so takes us back to the key issue of the growing discrepancy between national poltics and increasingly supranational policies. This is why we cannot avoid to address the problem of supranational democracy. We need to tackle the negative consequences of a globalization that serves only the interests of a few countries or groups of people. Let us not forget that the first wave of globalization in modern times started around the 1870s and ended in 1914 with World War I.
PDT: I know that, as most political scientists, you are wary of predictions. But I would like to end this conversation by asking what you see happening on two fronts that are very important for the future of Europe: Brexit and the French elections.
YM: On Britain, my opinion is that the parties should work towards a soft Brexit, which would be mutually profitable. But in these negotiations you never know how things play out. At the moment it seems that in Britain there is a strong push for a hard brexit, which might have very damaging consequences, especially for Scotland. There could be a temptation to build, right next to the continent, a sort of “British Singapore” whose main vocation would be financial services, education and research, leaving behind that part of the population composed of unskilled labour.
As regards France, in many ways I feel a bit more relaxed with Fillon as the candidate of the right, I disagree with the analysis of much of the press, which presents Fillon as an ultraconservative, ultraliberal candidate. That fits the profile of the social groups supporting Fillon much more than it fits Fillon himself. I think Fillon has the chance to play a role similar to the one played by De Gaulle, who managed to put the extreme right in a corner and most of the right, the centre, and even some parts of the left, under his wing. I do not think Fillon can go as far as attracting some parts of the left, but he certainly could unify the centre and the right under a moderate umbrella—ultimately pushing the Front National back into a corner. As for the left, the fact that Hollande has decided not to run again is also good news because his would have been an electoral disaster. Under the present circumstances I do not see the left making the runoff of the presidential elections. But you never know: we still have five months to go and many things can still change.
Let me make one final observation about the primaries: everybody in France seems extremely happy with the success of this process. But let us not firget that primaries were invented by the American populists in order to bypass political parties. We might be pleased by primaries as a expression of democracy in the short run, but we should keep in mind that they have destructurve effects on party organizations in the medium and long run, especially in those systems traditionally based on the principle of representative democracy. After all, look at the Italian Democratic Party, which is in pieces also as a result its divisive primaries. Again, we are in the middle of the river: we are destroying the old systems but have not yet a fully-fledged alternative to replace them.
An Italian version of this interview has appeared on eunews as part of an editorial partnership with EuVisions.
Photo Credits CC Eric Vernier
Also published on Medium.