Regime Change in Europe: Do Greece and Italy Amount to a Bankers’ Coup?
By Stephan Faris Friday, Nov. 11, 2011
The voice of the people isn’t something the markets seem to want to hear these days. First there was Greece, the cradle of democracy itself, where early this month, the merest mention of a referendum offering its citizens a say in a series of severe austerity measures was enough to send the markets into a tailspin. The ultimate result: the collapse of Prime Minister George Papandreou’s ruling coalition, the rejection of any notion of bringing the proposal before the people, and the installation of a caretaker government under the leadership of Lucas Papademos, a former vice president of the European Central Bank and, until earlier this week, a visiting professor at Harvard.
Then came Italy. As Athens threatened to go under, Rome found itself under pressure not so much for its level of debt — which though high is generally considered within the limits of sustainability — as much as for the erratic behavior of its flamboyant prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. On Monday, investors seemed to make the collective decision that he could no longer be trusted at the helm of the euro zone’s third largest economy and sent Italy’s cost of borrowing up towards crisis levels. By the end of the week, not only was Berlusconi finished, so was the very idea of holding a vote to replace him. The markets had spoken, and they didn’t like the idea of going to the electorate. “The country needs reforms, not elections,” said Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council on a visit to Rome Friday.
Indeed both Papandreou and Berlusconi had been respectively berated and belittled by Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy of France. It is almost as if Franco-German displeasure combined with the disapproval of the markets was enough to bring about regime-change. As in Athens, the plan in Rome is to replace the outgoing prime minister with somebody from outside the political class. Mario Monti, a neo-liberal economist and former EU commissioner who seems designed with the idea of calming the markets in mind, is expected to take over from Berlusconi after he resigns Saturday. For many in the two battle-scarred capitals, the fact that Papademos and Monti aren’t directly accountable to the public isn’t a problem. It’s the reason they’re being called in. Both countries have been tasked by the EU to attempt to restore confidence through deep cuts, sharp tax hikes and painful restructurings of the economy. The two technocrats have been tapped to lead because no politicians wants to face the electorate after doing what the markets have decreed needs to be done. “Democracy has very serious limitations.” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at Rome’s LUISS University. “It has the ability to kill itself, to self-destruct. [Bringing in a technocratic government] is not good or bad. It’s necessary.”