Articles / Rubric: Global

The End of a Charismatic Era
July - August 2012 | Global

More than a dozen governments have fallen victim to the economic recession that has plagued Europe since 2008. In some countries, the official cabinet has been replaced more than once. With government officials slowly being replaced by technocrats, it would appear that Europe’s era of charisma and charm is a thing of the past.

The outlook of the technology-inspired governments now has become even more grim, with very small hope of a quick recovery. And there is little faith that the legislation being introduced by Europe’s new leaders will be any more effective than that of their predecessors.

The European leaders from the 1980s and 1990s - including among them Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterand, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, and Jose María Aznar – were once famous for the charisma they brought to the world stage. But that era has long since come to an end, especially when Europe lost its last great leaders, Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy, over the last few months.

Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation (who ruled the country almost as long as Benito Mussolini was in power in the 1940s) in November of last year gave hope to many experts, who believed that the change in Italian leadership would act as a “panacea”, a solution to all the difficulties Europe was facing in the aftermath of the crisis.

The prime minister, who was elected three times and appeared in the headlines of international media numerous times, was forced to resign when Italy, with an external debt of 1.9 trillion Euros, was threatened with a total economic collapse. However, Berlusconi resigned with dignity and, at the end of his administration, agreed to unpopular pension reforms in exchange for his resignation.

It’s possible that Berlusconi’s resignation would not have been seen as the “end of an era” and the so-called charismatic leaders of Europe if it hadn’t been for the enormous difference between the long-term prime minister and his successor, Mario Monti.

Monti, a former professor, European Commissioner, and President of the Bruegel Institute of Economic Research, was appointed by President Giorgio Napolitano after Berlusconi’s resignation, an act that prompted many European journalists to proclaim the “end of European democracy”.

“SuperMario”, a nickname given to the prime minister by local journalists, has had no previous experience in politics, but as soon as he was put into office, Monti proposed a new economic plan for Italy, titled “Salva Italia” (Save Italy). The plan calls for draconian measures, such as cutting back on budgets for everyone and everything. In addition to reducing government expenditures and official positions, Monti suggested implementing a tax on luxury real estate, an excise tax on gasoline, and discouraged the indexation of Italian pensions. The new prime minister even imposed a tax on the commercial activities of the Vatican, an act which no Italian government has ever done before, and vetoed Rome’s application to host the Summer Olympics in 2020. “I do not think that, in our current economic situation, holding the Olympics would be responsible. In fact, one of the reasons we find ourselves in such a difficult financial situation is because previous governments made similar decisions without thinking about the consequences,” said Mario Monti.

Because of Monti’s lack of political ambition (after the elections in 2013, he plans to return to his activities at the university), the prime minister was able to take such drastic measures, which many Italian politicians could not have done.

“Only Monti could have done all these things, many of which have been put off for decades. He is invulnerable because he alone doesn’t need the voters’ approval,” commented Facco Bonetti, the former Italian Ambassador to Russia.

Monti has promised to make Italy a “role model for Europe”. But while the professor was able to implement the first part of his plan successfully, the second part of his program, “Cresci Italia”, is not doing as well. The plan, which was introduced in late January, is currently at a standstill, as negotiations with unions continue concerning labor market reforms – Article 18 of the Labor Code, which protests employees from being laid off in large firms and ensure that employers offer permanent work contracts to their employees, is under particular scrutiny. According to Monti, the proposed amendments will help create jobs, enhance the competitiveness of Italian goods, and protect the country throughout the debt crisis. Unions, however, are convinced that Monti’s actions will only enable employers to fire workers in the future. For the time being, it appears that SuperMario’s main battle is yet to come.

Professor Monti may have nothing to lose in the political sphere, but one new European politician, Francois Hollande, has a lot at stake as the first Socialist to occupy the Elysee Palace since 1995.

Despite the celebrations of the French Socialists at Hollande’s victory (who won with 51.1% of the vote over Sarkozy’s 48.9%), it is clear that Hollande is very different from the last Socialist president, Francois Mitterand. Previously a deputy of the National Assembly, Hollande is openly referred to as a “bureaucrat”, “zero”, and “a man of the past”.

“Francois Hollande is a complete bureaucrat – throughout his presidential campaign, he promised to be ‘normal’ compared to Nicolas Sarkozy. But he is different from any other president we’ve had since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1959, not just when compared to Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande’s victory could be a sign that democratic countries are becoming more reluctant to choose bright and charismatic leaders for their countries,” says French philosopher and economist Guy Sorman. “In times of economic crisis, European leaders are almost, for lack of a better word, too normal. And for many, the fact that ‘normalcy’ held the victory over charisma could indeed be cause for celebration. After all, democracy is founded on the votes of ordinary people, so it would make sense for them to vote for normal people just like themselves, and for those normal people to hold power according to certain rules.”

But there is another side to think about. “Does the trend of “normalcy” among European leaders have anything to do with strategic thinking? Do any of them truly have a vision for the future development of Europe?” asks Sorman. “Hollande mainly relied on the successes of the 1960s for his campaign, when there was a strong welfare state in which large public investments, designed to promote economic growth, and increasing unemployment coexisted. The starting point for Hollande was the post-war ideal in his youth, a period of rapid growth, population increases, immigration, and global competitiveness. In other words, Hollande is going to attempt to entice European leaders with a vision for a world that no longer exists.”

This could potentially dangerous, especially with the all the problems that the new French president now faces.

Yet the greatest political danger, in a European political crisis that is no less important than the economic crisis, is not the resignation of the continent’s most influential leaders, all of whom helped create a stable European state over the past few years. In the end, the new generation of bureaucrats will most likely be able to handle the situation. The main danger now is a protest vote in upcoming European elections.

In times of crisis, Europeans do not vote for the Left or the Right – rather, they vote against whichever side holds power when the crisis becomes worse. And in these situations, the winner is often the radical third party.

The French elections, which were held around the same time as the Grecian elections, showed the world that, if there is one thing to watch out for, it is the unpredictability of people when the ratings for traditional politics begin to drop. For example, the Neo-Fascist group, “Golden Dawn”, was able to enter the Greek Parliament, and the left side, in terms of elected officials, is in second place in almost all European government bodies. And in June, when Greece will hold a secondary election for its cabinet (the results of the first election were too close to call), it is possible that the Greeks, after several years of economic downturn, will surprise everyone with their choices for government.

Greece is not the only European country turning to radical measures. In the Netherlands, the ratings for the Right Freedom Party continue to grow as the country waits impatiently for a second election. In 2010, the party won 34 seats in parliament (as compared to only 9 seats in 2006), and the amount of support it has currently remains unknown.

In Spain, the United Left, which leans to the far left, and a number of similar nationalist groups did very well in parliamentary elections.

To confirm the general trend of voters leaning towards the radical left, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the “National Front”, was able to secure 18% of the vote in the first round of French elections.

Even in Finland, one of the more stable European countries, the parliament’s third largest party is the “True Finns” party, which votes to limit the number of immigrants coming into Finland and is against further EU integration.

European politics is just one of the many victims of the economic crisis – but the future of European government will depend on the generations of bureaucrats aiming to rescue their country from financial ruin.

Text: Elena Shesternina

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