Italy's lost sovereignty – when did it happen?

During the past few weeks, Mr. Monti has named many reforms that need to be made, not including a new electoral law. But if it is true that we have lost a great deal of sovereignty, we Italians did it willingly, a long time ago, and Mr. Monti has little to do with it.
Giulio D’Eramo
10 December 2011

Mr. Berlusconi has finally stepped down, at least for the time being. But he did so too late, so late that we did not have time to call for fresh elections: we needed to act quickly as the interest rates on our huge debt were floating at around 7%.

Now a new government has been sworn in, a government made of up of strictly unpolitical figures. A technocrats' government – following the Greek precedent. The PM, former European commissioner Mr. Monti, is also heading up the economics ministry, while the development and infrastructural ministry is to be run by the well-known banker C. Passera. Other ministries, such as those in education, defence, and labour are also now led by professionals. 

If this technocratic and unelected government clearly shows a loss of sovereignty on behalf of the Italian people, it is also important to stress that, according to the polls, Mr. Monti does enjoy the approval of more than 70% of Italians (but disapproval for the choice of C. Passera is at around 80%). 

After the shortlived hope of a Greek referendum to reinstate a balance of powers between the people and its institutions to the advantage of the former, Mr. Monti's nomination follows in the steps of the EU decision to send an emergency mission to assess the stability of Italy's finances and the implementation of measures intended to address the famous 39 questions that the European Commission sent months ago to our former PM, Berlusconi. 

Among these questions, of which some are perfectly reasonable, one in particular (n. 25) stands out as a clear example of the little consideration that people's sovereignty is enjoying these days:

“explain what reform measures are envisaged in the water sector, despite the results of the [June 2011] referendum”. The new environment minister seems to have a similarly scant regard for the June Referendum (which successfully prohibited nuclear energy development and water privatization), as he immediately stated that nuclear energy should be considered as a viable option.  

And this brings us to an important consideration: if it is true, as the Economist reported, that democracy is not in its finest hour all-around the globe, it is also true that Italy had anticipated this particular pattern long before the crisis. 

Italy's political world, bounded by its iron curtain strategies, was a de facto one party state for almost 50 years. Many Italians, wary of the consequences of a non-accountable political class, voted for the strong man who promised to make the political world simpler, but ever less accountable. 

Now, as much as we would like to immediately take ourselves to the ballot box to see Mr. Berlusconi once and for all times defeated by the voters, we have to acknowledge that even the strongest of wins is not likely to result in a solid parliamentary majority. This is thanks to the 2006 electoral law, which reintroduced a proportional system into Italy that has granted it 50 successive governments in the first forty-seven postwar years. Worst of all, this is a proportional system without preferences – which means that MPs are actually selected by party hierarchies.  With this system, even if the left won 45% of the vote against Berlusconi's 36%, there would be no solid majority - if any - in the upper chamber. So, while defying the markets by allowing a lengthy electoral process to get under way is certainly worth considering, it is hard not to take the chance we have, when that outcome looks shakier than the present one. 

The electoral law is probably Berlusconi's worse and most appropriate legacy. When a prominent representative of a flawed system is welcomed as the only person with enough knowledge to understand the problems, and enough power to redress them, we can be sure of one thing only: he/she will transplant the flaws of that system to every level of society, to every sector of our markets and our institutions. During the past few week, Mr. Monti has named many reforms that need to be made, but not a new electoral law.  

In the meantime, Mr Berlusconi is in standby mode. But, as he said in a video released 10 minutes after Mr. Monti was appointed PM, he will redouble his efforts to shape Italian society to his likings, and  with that, he instructed Mr. Monti not to change the electoral law. A few days later, he pointed out that he will be looking at the polls, and that as soon as these look promising he will “pull the plug” on the technocrat's government. We shouldn’t laugh: as many commentators are pointing out, a technocratic government supported also by the left, and in charge of dramatic austerity measures, is likely to provide some highly persuasive arguments for Berlusconi's comeback in the polls. Whatever happens, we can only hope that PM Monti will at least last 6 months, as a referendum to change the electoral law is scheduled for the spring, after 1.2 million signatures were gathered in September 2011. Once again, it seemed, we had to take matters in our own hands.

If elections play a big role in creating and enhancing a democratic government, they are not the only thing that democracies cannot do without. Transparency and accountability of political decision-making, as well as of the flow and distribution of money coming from the state, are the basic fundamentals of any kind of government that wants to be supported by its citizens. A government unable to satisfy these needs can hardly claim much sovereignty, no matter whether it is an elected government or not. Mr Monti is an expert on competition and good governance, and although in need of the votes of an unaccountable political class, he will probably try to implement some of the transparency measures without which a state can have no sovereignty, and a free market cannot exist. 

So if it is true that we have lost a great deal of sovereignty, we did it willingly, a long time ago, and Mr. Monti has little to do with it.  On the bright side, Italy's progressive loss of sovereignty has slowed down, and a change of direction is more likely than not.


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