Germany’s odd role in Italian farce

In: Uncategorized

4 Mar 2013

It may not be as peculiar as a former comedian winning a quarter of the votes but Germany’s role in the Italian general elections was decidedly odd.

German politicians had made it clear that they favoured Mario Monti, the technocrat who ruled Italy as unelected prime minister for over a year, whose party only got about 10 per cent of the vote. They were also unhappy with all the other party leaders: Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister and media tycoon, Pier Luigi Bersani, the centre left Democratic Party candidate, and Beppe Grillo, a former comedian and head of the Five Star Movement.

So Germany got the worst of all possible outcomes. It came out clearly in favour of one candidate who ended up doing particularly badly.

Nor did the criticism stop after the elections. Peer Steinbrück, the head of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), said he was “appalled that two clowns had won” referring to Berlusconi and Grillo (His remarks are available to watch in German here).

Giorgio Napolitano, the Italian president, cancelled a planned dinner with Steinbrück in protest at the comments. But even some conservative German politicians accused the SPD leader of going too far; denouncing him as a “German Peerlusconi” and an “external security risk”.

As many readers will no doubt remember this is not Germany’s first overt intervention in the elections of a neighbouring country. In last year’s French presidential elections German chancellor Angela Merkel even offered to campaign for Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative incumbent, yet he ended up losing to François Hollande.

Merkel had a longstanding political relationship with Sarkozy that led the twosome to be dubbed ‘Merkozy’. But as the election approached the French president decided to distance himself a little for his German ally. In the event it did not help as the Socialist candidate swept to victory.

There are several points to note from what, at least from Merkel’s perspective, is an unfortunate chain of events. For a start it is relatively new for Germany to make such blatant interventions into the internal affairs of other European countries. Until recently it would have been seen as inappropriate, given Germany’s chequered past, but that taboo has clearly gone.

However, it would also be wrong to see Germany as having a conscious plan to dominate Europe. On the contrary, Merkel is a deeply pragmatic politician. Her motivation seems to be to bring stability to her turbulent neighbours at all costs.

That does not make interfering in the sovereign affairs of neighbouring states desirable. On the contrary, there are strong grounds for objection in principle and in practice. But it is important to try to work out what motivates the German government’s actions.

Indeed Merkel’s attitude towards foreign elections was in some respects similar to her domestic campaigns. Her motivations and campaigning style are overwhelmingly pragmatic. Overall the German elite prefers expert technocrats rather than politicians holding strong opinions. In general, Germany’s governing class is intensely suspicious of populist politicians.

Although this trend may be particularly pronounced in Germany it has become prevalent among European elites. That is why both Greece and Italy could recently have unelected governments imposed on them with hardly a murmur of protest in the media.

Under such circumstances it is hardly surprising that ordinary people feel disenfranchised and resentful. The Italian election result was not just a protest against austerity but against unelected technocratic rule too. That helps explain why most Italians favoured an ex-comedian and Berlusconi over a former unelected prime minister.

This blog post first appeared today on Fundweb.