Democracy's Conundrum: Reforms Take Time to Mature -- But Voters Want Results Now


This article is excerpted from Mario Monti's installation speech as an Associate Member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in Paris on May 5. It has been translated from French by Bill Weber.

We frequently hear it said that "Europe is in crisis." However, this assertion merits a more thorough analysis.

In recent years I examined this very topic, having had the chance of a double experience, first European as a member of the European Commission, followed by that of the leader of the Government of Italy. I also did some theoretical thinking on the subject in my book, published in 2012 with Sylvie Goulard, entitled "On Democracy in Europe, looking above and beyond" (Flammarion/RCS for the Italian version).

In this book, we undertake a frank analysis of the situation, which has led us to the conclusion that we are dealing less with a crisis of the European Union than rather with that of democracy in Europe, revealing a breakdown of both the member states and the Union. This crisis concerns both the legitimacy of decisions and the authority of the decision makers themselves.

Furthermore, and this confers on the crisis its violent and multi-faceted character, we detect a mutation of our societies through new technologies and globalization, whose full scope has yet to be assessed by our political regimes.

In order to find long-term solutions, governments must admit to the interdependence and connectedness of their responsibilities, just as they must reject short-term tyranny, which leads to the neglect of future generations. Of all the faults of our democracies, the latter is certainly the worst.

"In order to find long-term solutions, governments must admit to the interdependence and connectedness of their responsibilities, just as they must reject short-term tyranny, which leads to the neglect of future generations. Of all the faults of our democracies, the latter is certainly the worst."

All reforms entail both long-term benefits and a political price that must be paid immediately. In countries with governments that alternate between the left and the right, we realize how difficult it often is to reach decisions on implementing profound changes because the opposition party can easily mobilize those social groups who are most severely impacted by the reforms proposed by the government in power. In Italy, for example, the need for a pension reform as well as for the fight against tax evasion are largely recognized.

However, the left rejected tackling the first and the right would not take on the fight against the latter. After I was asked to lead the country, we formed a "grand coalition," which finally made it possible to realize both of these reforms simultaneously. The efforts of those, who, on each side, attempted to block the necessary measures, were neutralized once we were able to present them as a "package."

Other countries, which benefitted from a stronger social cohesion, were able to implement these reforms before the situation became critical. This was especially the case in Germany.

At the other end of the spectrum, experience has taught us that in those political systems, which are less open to grand coalitions, such as the presidential regimes (United States and the Fifth Republic in France), wide ranging reforms are more difficult to implement. In the absence of a bi-partisan agreement, the Americans find it even difficult to adopt a budget.

All great reforms must first mature. To be successful, they must be fully understood by society. This process requires time and a lot of explanations. However, the need to obtain the consent of the people must not deter the leaders from their mission, even if it makes them unpopular. As it is written in the American Federalist Papers: "When occasions present themselves, in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests, to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection" (Federalist Papers Nr. 71).

Robert Schuman did not call for a referendum nor did he commission a poll before making his declaration of 1950, in which he called for German-French reconciliation. He simply did what he thought was right. He assumed his responsibility regardless of whether the decision made him popular or not. In the end, he was popular. Vaclav Havel stated: "I belong to those who see their role in politics as the expression of their own responsibilities toward their community, as their sense of duty, and even as a sort of sacrifice."(Speech at the award ceremony of the Sonning Prize, Copenhagen, 1991).

Also, often, the leaders of the European Union shy away from their responsibilities. In the euro zone, for example, they showed too much "politeness" in applying the mutual control that is allowed in the treaties. Instead, they should have brazenly identified those problems that could have a potential impact on others. They never used the power of the majority vote given to them by the treaty in order to escape from the deadlock created by a majority vote.


What is called "populism" nowadays is not really tantamount to defending the real interests of the people. Rather, it is a political ruse, which consists of using ultra-simplified language that is easily understood by the people, playing on their sense of fear, to conquer power.

"What is called 'populism' nowadays is not really tantamount to defending the real interests of the people. Rather, it is a political ruse, which consists of using ultra-simplified language that is easily understood by the people, playing on their sense of fear, to conquer power."

A good example of this is the famous "austerity." The EU is often criticized for having "imposed" it. Granted, some countries had to make considerable efforts. However, this "austerity" is in reality a beneficial cure, which favors the young generations that have been all too often sacrificed these days. Its origins can be found in the mistakes of the national policies of the past. Without Europe, the adjustments might have been much more formidable.

The EU, by its nature, is complicated to explain. Because of its heterogeneous and original nature, it not easy to grasp. Moreover, acting in favor of openness and free trade is more difficult than advocating closeness and defending the short-term individual interests. Protectionism, tightly closed borders, and a halt to immigration are solutions, which may appear to be based on common sense, but whose harmful repercussions are only revealed much later.

In the face of these slippages, the authorities could have taken more resolute actions. When I was a member of the European Council, I was astonished by the fact that the heads of states and governments spent a lot of time on technical decisions, most of which -- because of the financial crisis -- had to do with the finance ministries, instead of focusing more on the important political stakes. Already in 2012 I proposed that the council hold a meeting specifically devoted to the phenomenon of "populism," and this long before the European elections.

President Herman Van Rompoy had welcomed this proposal, but once again, the urgency of a discussion on current problems (the EU budget, solving the financial crisis, and more recently the Ukraine) did not allow the heads of states and governments to debate the question of populism, which has since become without doubt a fundamental challenge for the European integration.

It is important for the political leaders to have an overall perspective and not to let themselves be tempted by a purely technical approach. For a long time, France has had this ability to rise above the everyday contingencies.


I would like to close with a friendly appeal to France, which honors me today by welcoming me to one of its most prestigious institutions.

The reason why things are not going well in Europe these days, I think, is precisely because France has ceased somewhat to play the role that it should and could play in Europe.

France occupies a decisive position between North and South. It is important to remember that the European Community originated from the will to reconcile the French and the Germans, or in other words, to turn the Latins and the Germanics into allies. It takes sustenance from this difference, which, for a long time, was negative and the cause of wars, but later proved to be a fertile and positive force -- once it was used to serve a community of destiny.

This is why, we must categorically reject any idea of an alliance of Southern Europe against Germany, although we may continue in defending some opinions, which may differ on certain points from those held by the German authorities. We can even attempt to rally the latter to our cause through an effort of persuasion.

What is at stake here is that France should return to being France and to playing its role as a bridge to Germany to its fullest. This, however, requires that France improves its performance and that it implements those rules that it has signed and ratified.

As far as the acute stage of the crisis is concerned, progress has been made with respect to the rapprochement between North and South. The countries in the South have made considerable efforts to enter a culture of stability. It is obviously necessary for them not to abandon these efforts. However, the Northern countries must also do what is necessary to contribute to the prosperity of all. Germany, for example, has the necessary leeway to further liberalize the service sector and to contribute more to the common market.

Beyond the technical measures, we must understand each other better. We share the same currency and the same rules, but we remain characterized by profound cultural differences. These are not insurmountable, but we must be aware of them and work patiently toward reducing our differences.

Moreover, it would be positive for France to return to its role of making proposals and giving impulsion to this process. More specifically, it should submit proposals for Europe's future, emanating from its ethic sense of responsibility and engagement. The deeper meaning of a social market economy as it is defined in the treaties, lies in defending a model for life and development in the service of future generations. The role of Europe in the world cannot be defined in isolation from its intrinsic values.

As Vaclav Havel recommended already in 1999, Europe must be aware of its own evolution. We need new ideas, an all-encompassing project, which must, of course, be discussed between French and Germans, together with those partners who share the will for progress.

The work undertaken by groups that emanated from civil society, such as the Glienicker group in Germany and the Eiffel group in France, have established an initial interesting foundation for an ambitious and pragmatic discussion around the euro zone.

Italy shall, of course, also make its contribution. It has undertaken enormous reform efforts. It is the only Southern country that has found a way out of its excessive deficits. And it has never lacked in great European figures, from Alcide de Gasperi, to Altiero Spinelli and Giorgio Napolitano.

Contrary to what extremists are advocating, the solution to Europe's problems is not to be found in a flight forward, or even less in a return to the past, into the lap of nations who believe that Europe "does not work" any longer.

On the contrary, the solution can be found in joint and deep reflection on the objectives and ethical principles, upon which the whole European project must be built. This moral analysis must not oppose the different levels of responsibilities (regions, states, EU), but must include and nourish all of them, so that public authority can offer solutions for the common good.

The world undergoes rapid and profound mutations. There is no unique model and there are no simple and obvious solutions. This is why I have written a book on democracy. We have a choice among different political, economic and social solutions. Once the orientations have been defined by those responsible, a debate shall allow a consensus on the project itself to emerge.

This shall require time and patience. With this in mind, I can only refer you to the words of Vaclav Havel. He invited us to rein in our impatience and to understand that waiting is not deprived of meaning.

From my perspective I would add that, even if Europe evolves slowly, if we expect more from it and if, indeed, this slow pace frustrates us, what is essential is to keep working at it together in order to ensure its life and its progress.

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