Mario Monti: the Mandarin on Tour

Mario Monti’s presentation of his new book at the Bozar auditorium ten days ago was regrettably short on substance, like the book itself. Monti traded political indiscretions for audience applause. With friends like this, the federalist cause of EU reform has little chance of gaining traction. Read on….


Mario Monti: the Mandarin on Tour

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



Every one of the 2,400 seats in the Bozar concert hall was filled on 30 January for the presentation of a book co-authored by acting Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti. The last such event in the Bozar series on EU institutional reform occurred a couple of months ago when Guy Verhofstadt and Daniel Cohn-Bendit appeared on behalf of their passionate manifesto for achieving a federal Union by 2014, Debout l’Europe. They spoke to a similarly numerous audience but at that point the similarity ends.

It was both curious and revealing that Mario Monti’s opening remarks to the public discussion of his book De la démocratie en Europe directed attention to the book’s subtitle, Voir plus loin.   Monti linked the concept of ‘seeing further’ with an appointed meritocracy, namely with the regime of the Chinese Communist Party, rather than European or American notions of governance by elected officials. Politicians, he insisted, tend to be short-term operators, not visionaries. Thus, not only by his demeanor but also by his carefully worded programmatic statement, Monti stepped forward as a mandarin from his first moments on stage.


The book which was supposed to be presented hardly figured in the event at all. Only one question posed by the moderator comes to mind- how and when Monti and his co-author Sylvie Goulard decided to write a book.  Otherwise the evening was spent on political indiscretions which Mario Monti used to ingratiate himself with the audience. The many MEPs and members of the local Italian community in the orchestra seats reserved for VIPs lapped it up.

Monti was particularly careful to produce some saucy remarks for the media representatives who were ringing the stage. Thus, his gratuitous appraisal of David Cameron’s January 24th speech on plans for a referendum over continued EU membership.  Monti exuded hauteur, saying that the British public would think twice about leaving the Union lest they give up the pleasure of causing the Continent so much discomfit.  Alone from the evening these remarks were picked up by Euronews and served as an amusing sound bite for their news bulletins the next day.

Monti also treated us to the behind-closed-doors remarks of Nicolas Sarkozy, relating how at the conclusion of many hours of fruitless attempts to win Cameron’s support for the creation of the stability fund, the former French President exclaimed with great irritation: ‘at last, 40 years of hypocrisy are at an end!’

I left the hall just ahead of the scheduled question time from the audience, not expecting anyone in this respectful and high-spirited audience to ask the one question that was on my mind:  how the Prime Minister of Italy had found the time to write a book amidst the grave economic crisis which brought him to power. Surely he was otherwise occupied bringing the country back from the brink, restoring confidence in its financial controls both in the markets and among his colleagues in Northern Europe. 

I found the answer to that conundrum the next day when I visited my neighborhood bookseller in Ixelles, procured a copy of his work and sat down for a read. It quickly became apparent that if the 250 pages in this volume were purged of unnecessary and distracting quotations and detours into lexicology, we would have perhaps 30 pages of text with original thoughts. The references to political philosophers from classical antiquity to our own age, the citations from cardinals and statesmen are nothing more than plumage display. And this is regrettable, because we were drawn to Monti, the author and speaker of the evening on the basis of his authority as the acting Prime Minister of Italy, as the consummate EU insider, not for his professorial credentials.


In all fairness, the dry residue of 30 pages is worthy of reflection, and it is reflection, rather than action, that Monti seeks to elicit.  In this connection, there is one authority whom he cites with good reason: Alexis de Toqueville. It is, of course, not only the title of de Toqueville’s 1835 master work which stands behind Monti’s ‘Democracy in Europe but the French aristocrat’s attentiveness to the two dimensions of democracy,  social leveling and the system of governance.

Monti’s fundamental point is that the present crisis which the European Union is experiencing results not so much from a lack of democracy in its highest political institutions in Brussels but in the turning away from the commitment to social solidarity which goes back to its very inception in the 1950s. 

The only other references in Monti’s book which are genuinely appropriate and helpful in forming one’s thoughts about the challenges and possibilities of far-reaching institutional reform of the European Union are to the Federalist Papers.  After all, the most commonly held objective of pro-Europeans is a United States of Europe, and nothing could be better than to look into the thinking of James Madison, John Hamilton and John Jay on selected issues of America’s passing from a confederacy to a federal union.

With respect to the (political) democracy deficit in Brussels which it is so fashionable for Euroskeptics to talk up when they blame the appointed European Commission for the woes of the Continent, Monti turns the tables and insists that Europe is better than people imagine and the nation-states are worse.  But instead of exposing the systemic flaws in various Member States which deprive their citizens of effective control of the political process, Monti argues in favor of the national elites versus the politicians. The parliaments of the nation-states cannot see into the future and take bold steps.

Monti, the mandarin, defends his own kind when he tries to explain why the Commission is nice rather than nasty. He tells us it performs an essential, neutral bureaucratic function of steadily implementing policy that is set by the nation-states acting as Executive in the form of the European Council.


Monti reminds us that separation of powers between the institutions in Brussels was never a guiding principle, because the EEC and then the EU were conceived as a supranational entity, not a sovereign state. But he would have us believe that popular control over the Commission is exercised effectively through the European Parliament’s vetting process for candidate Commissioners. While MEPs may buy that proposition, it is surely a hard sell to the general public.


I also do not find persuasive Monti’s defense of the Commission as an institution rising above the conflicting interests of the 27 Member States for the sake of the commonweal of Europe’s 500 million citizens. His praise for stability versus quinquennial shifts to the Right or Left following parliamentary elections is a blow to democratic governance in general. In any case, the creation of a cabinet of ministers replacing the Commissioners and reporting to/drawn from the European Parliament need not compromise the bureaucratic inertia and ‘neutrality’ of the Commission’s operational staff.


So much for Monti’s chapter on democracy ‘by the people,’ which, I believe, was guided by his cold intellect. The chapter on democracy ‘for the people,’ was guided by his heart and is probably the strongest in the book, because it deals with the issues that have been on his plate this past year:  the economic crisis and how best to deal with it.

Here Monti reminds us that the social market economy and a redistributive policy of raising the weaker members of the Union were key elements of the supranational entity from the very beginning. And he points out that the social cohesion this implies went into reverse in the 1980s both within and between the Member States. With the onset of the post-2008 economic crisis in Europe, this problem has risen to the fore with the imposition of austerity programs on Member States in need of bail-outs, first Greece, Portugal and Ireland; and by self-imposition of such programs in Italy and Spain to avoid formal bail-outs and loss of economic sovereignty. The result has been a significant rise in popular anger over the loss of benefits, loss of jobs and other very painful aspects of a recession that is being made worse by government policies. This animus is being directed against Brussels by irresponsible national politicians and the European idea is unwinding. In Monti’s view, austerity must be accompanied by offsetting stimulus in the form of investment in education, in measures raising productivity and the like.

His observations on who and what is putting the European cause at risk, and on the need for a PR offensive to restore the confidence of the peoples of Europe in their common future are all to the good. Where the book falls down is in its last chapters devoted to prospective institutional reform of the EU and the question of federalism.

From hints here and there, we may assume that Monti’s feet are pointed in the direction of a federal Union. The problem is his advocacy is very, very tepid. He is overly cautious, tries to hide behind the authority of others and finally gives us no timeline whatsoever on making the European Union truly democratic in Brussels.

Whereas Guy Verhofstadt and Daniel Cohn-Bendit issued a call for revolution, Monti has issued a call for gentlemanly discussion. He talks like a professor or think tank writer, not like a political animal. 

Monti’s recommendations for immediate action are mostly technical, tweaking this and that, and avoiding pushing for changes that require new treaties.  For example, he urges separating out the euro zone countries within the European Parliament and Commission, as this has been done in the European Council to deal with strictly euro zone issues. Or he wants to settle the European Parliament in Brussels once and for all, ending the commuting to Strasbourg. He would use the money saved thereby to set up a high level center for European Studies to further the European identity among the peoples of the Member States.

Monti mentions in passing in his second chapter that there are lacuna in the democratic construction of Europe which cannot be long ignored: that the European deputies have no direct taxation powers and that the Parliament has no legislative initiative. But Monti he does not suggest when exactly these faults can be corrected, just as he ventures no dates for the more substantial reforms needed to create a  genuinely parliamentary democracy or presidential democracy at the federal level, and requiring treaty revisions. We are told only such objectives belong to the medium or long term, and that the treaty changes, when they come must not be approved by unanimity, as in the past, but by opt in or out, so that the great majority is not frustrated by a small and irresponsible minority as happened in 2005. Yet without timelines, you can be sure nothing will be achieved.

The chatty bookseller in Ixelles told me that the week before Monti’s co-author Sylvie Goulard had been phoning up bookstores all around Brussels to see if they were stocking the book. Clearly vanity has been the driver of this book’s publication. All of this brought to mind a quote from Cicero, which Monti somehow overlooked in preparing his cut-and-paste opus: “The times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”


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G. Doctorow is an occasional lecturer at St. Petersburg University.