If Europe were a living being, he or she would by now be in the Accident and Emergency ward of a hospital. The source of the trouble is easy to diagnose: it is the European Union. One grave symptom is the common currency, the euro, which operates to enrich some and impoverish others, blindly and cruelly. Even graver, perhaps, over the last decade migrants numbering in the millions have been abandoning Muslim homelands to reach Europe in an impulsive and contentious shift of population. Week after week, day after day, thousands more are still risking all to cross the Mediterranean. Ordinary processes of admission and vetting and integration are overwhelmed. The bureaucrats in the European Union capital of Brussels are unable to formulate any coherent foreign policy that might help to stop this massive flight from Muslim homelands, and they are equally helpless when it comes to devising measures that might reconcile the very divergent and sometimes conflicting cultures of natives and newcomers. What passes as demographic diversity realistically brings into question the future of European society and identity. Nationalism is heating everywhere to a temperature already close to explosion. In the absence of any known cure, this patient must either recover miraculously or die. The watchers at the bedside do not know what is to be hoped for, or what is to be feared.
Would-be doctors are coming off badly. One of the foremost among them is President Obama, who flew in to advise the British that in a referendum then about to occur they should vote to stay within the European Union. The vote to leave, Brexit for short, almost immediately exposed him as an airhead without influence or the prestige due to his office. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, campaigned one-sidedly on behalf of the European Union. The Brexit vote established that he was out of touch with public opinion, and so within a matter of hours he resigned to save face as best he could. Negotiation of terms for a different relationship between Britain and the countries on the continent commits the succeeding Prime Minister, Theresa May, to return to the virtue of government by consent.
The watchers at the bedside do not know what is to be hoped for.
The Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi organized for himself a spectacular re-run of the Cameron downfall. Previously Mayor of Florence, he was not even a member of parliament when the center-left Democratic Party thrust him into office in February 2014 at the age of thirty-nine. The career of Benito Mussolini had left Italy on the losing side, and the country’s sixty-three post-war prime ministers have been convinced that membership in the European Union is the way to avoid repeating that historic mistake. Renzi presented himself as an ex-officio captain on the side bound to win. For the purpose, he would introduce reforms that strengthened the prime minister by centralizing powers hitherto vested in the regions, and weakening parliament in order to facilitate the legislative process he had in mind.
Accordingly, he set in motion a referendum to ask Italians for a Yes or a No to the following battery of questions—the internal quotation is really not a simplifier: “Do you approve the text of the Constitutional Law concerning ‘dispositions for the overcoming of equal bicameralism, the reduction of the number of parliamentarians, the containing of the running costs of the institutions, the suppression of the National Economic and Labour Council and the review of Title V of Part II of the Constitution’ approved by Parliament and published in Gazzetta ufficiale n. 88 on 15 April 2016?” With misplaced confidence, Renzi gambled his future by promising to resign in the event of a No victory.
Since the middle of the last century my family has owned a house in Florence. In this retreat I cannot say that I have penetrated deep into the mystifying ways in which Italians do their business. Some scandalous issue churns violently for a moment, only to settle down as though nothing had actually happened. Malefactors on trial do receive sentences, but prison doors seem never to close on them. From top to bottom, in parliament and outside it, anomalies and checks and balances and personal relationships engage one and all in combinazioni, a key word inadequately translated as “deal-making,” the national art form of which there are so many supreme masters.
My neighbor in Tuscany, the late Muriel Spark, used to detect immense institutionalized wrongdoing, and she would weave conspiracy theories as fine-spun and brilliant as her novels. (How she would have delighted in the referendum!)
Anecdotal evidence is uncertain, to be sure, especially as out of politeness Italians tend to say what they think you want to hear. The chiropodist who trained in England, the electricians, and the men who come to look after the garden, make a point of congratulating me on Brexit as though it has been all my doing; they hope with apparent sincerity that Italy will follow suit. In my experience, people react to a mention of the European Union or the euro as they might to bad weather, grumbling that there’s nothing to be done about things of that kind. In today’s economic climate, a friend in the fashion industry has shut down her business. The old boys who sold beautiful linens and cottons in the city center have also closed down. Signor Leoncini, well known in the trade, used to have a workshop making leather goods for Hermès in Paris. Regulations from Brussels are too costly or too onerous to be absorbed, so he dismissed his staff, sold the premises, and retired. Unemployment is running at almost 12 percent, and for the young higher still at 38 percent. Many a life will have been ruined from the outset.
I first heard of Renzi from a friend who is a lawyer, and who had once coined a memorable rule of thumb: “In Italy the law is indicative but not obligatory.” He did not think well of his Prime Minister. Renzi, he said, had exploited his status as Mayor not in the city’s interest but to advance himself. In a word, he was a vulgarian. If Renzi had thought that the jargonized language of the referendum questions would be evidence of his superior capacities, he was in error. Voters interpreted his modernizing reforms as a grab for power on the part of someone with dictatorial aspirations that once again might well land the country on the losing side. As if unaware of possible unpopularity, he made an issue of his commitment to the European Union. His every word was taken as elitist arrogance. Sounding more and more authoritarian as he campaigned, Renzi was heedlessly inviting a vote of no confidence.
Renzi lost the referendum by nineteen percentage points, suffering what he admitted was “an exceptionally clear defeat.” The Yes vote had a majority only in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. In Sicily he won barely a quarter of the vote. Something on the order of three quarters of the voters under thirty-five rejected him. Conceding defeat on television with the look of humiliation straining his face, he had no choice except to keep his promise and resign. A general election is due to take place early next year; all bets on the outcome are off.
Renzi was heedlessly inviting a vote of no confidence.
Nemesis took the improbable form of Giuseppe Piero Grillo, familiarly Beppe, the successful engineer of No. Born in Genoa in 1948, he began as a stand-up comedian and television personality with a talent for clowning, satire, and four-letter repartee. Millions are said to read his blog. Masses of curly white hair and a beard to match give him the air of a typical aging hippie. His career took a political turn in 2010, when he launched the Five Star Movement. Found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in a car accident in 1980, he himself is barred by law from holding public office. Five Star currently has 91 of the 630 seats in parliament but no obvious candidate to head either government or opposition. Their platform amounts to a protest against all forms of political correctness. In particular, they would nationalize banks, re-instate the lira in place of the euro, and in the wake of Britain leave the European Union.
“Europe in turmoil,” ran the headline in more than one newspaper in more than one language. “I would like to see Yes win,” Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, had said in a timely interview he gave in Italy, adding that the country’s budget for next year “complied with E.U. rules,” precisely what so many Italians did not want to hear. After the referendum, he lamented that it was “unwise” to give people their say as they’d choose to leave the European Union; and he forecast a Third World War without, however, specifying the casus belli. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel was “saddened” by what had happened in Italy. Her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, spoke for E.U. officialdom: “This is a government crisis not a state crisis. It is not the demise of the Western world but it is not a positive contribution in the midst of our crisis situation in Europe.” On behalf of France, President François Hollande offered all his sympathy and his “hopes Italy can find the means to overcome this situation.”
François Hollande and Angela Merkel have both reached rare levels of unpopularity due to their mishandling of Muslim immigration, and this is likely to be the central issue in next year’s elections in France and Germany. A prominent Five Star member of parliament predicts that these elections will cast doubt on the euro. Both countries have minority nationalist parties, the Front National in France and the Alternativ für Deutschland in Germany. Their respective leaders, Marine Le Pen and Frauke Petry, coincidentally both women, may be less colorful than Grillo but they put forward very similar arguments and sentiments. As an opposition, they throw into relief the central fact that only the will of a restricted closed-shop of politicians holds the European Union together.
Will is by definition arbitrary and personal. Previous attempts to construct a state because someone ambitious and powerful has willed it have all ended in disasters, the worst of them, dictatorship in living memory. The Camerons and the Renzis, the Hollandes and the Merkels join the list of familiar figures whose exercise of will is their undoing. Their successors are also bound to destroy themselves, so long as there is no possibility of replacing the will of the few with the consent of the many. That is the stuff of tragedy.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 5, on page 86
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