Desperate times call for desperate measures

2 min read

Ever since Hippocrates, humanity often relied on the desperate times call for desperate measures principle in their need.

Starting with the Roman Republic, one of the earliest examples of representative democracy, where, under normal circumstances the Senate, the various assemblies and the elected officials (magistrates) worked together in a (mostly) seamlessly functioning system of checks and balances. But to handle serious external or internal threats, they had the dictators. Today, the term has a very bad reputation, but back then the dictator was chosen from among the most respectable men, and he was the “saviour of Rome”, with exceptional powers for a limited time, appointed not to destroy or replace the existing system but to save or conserve it.

While in the times of monarchies, there wasn’t much need for it, people didn’t stop thinking about management in extraordinary times. Machiavelli, Locke or Rousseau all believed that states needed the ability to cope with unexpected or immediate threats.

Even in (back-then) British Empire, another country known for its strong parliamentary traditions, Sir Winston Churchill had his “war ministry”, a limited cabinet that sat around a table every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, “hammering out policy on the most pressing issues raised by the war”.

The 20th century brought along the birth of the “technocratic movement” and with that the idea of “technocratic governments” as an option to tackle problems elected politicians proved unable to solve.

Just like the dictators back in Ancient Rome, technocrat-led governments are the exceptions and not the rule, reserved for “desperate times”. Since the end of the Second World War, there were less than 30-cases in the EU when governments were led by experts rather than politicians.

It is difficult to argue that the EU has been in a vicious and never-ending cycle of crises since 2019, starting with COVID, followed by a series of associated economic hardships and reaching a new low with Russia’s war in Ukraine. The patchwork is made even more colourful by cost-of-living crisis, farmers’ protests, climate change problems, green economy transition, just to give a few examples.

A time desperate enough.

So far, the European Commission has been in “crisis management mode”, desperately trying to navigate (without much success) the pile of intertwined problems. Party politics and domestic dynamics didn’t help this project, either.

If something, the process of forming the current Commission (a “slightly” modified version of the “Spitzenkandidat” process used in 2014) proved that it’s difficult even without additional problems. The candidate who emerged victorious (or the lowest common multiple of the competing forces) and is the lead candidate for the position, again, well, Ursula von der Leyen has a dubious track record.

Her tenure is riddled with many scandals (Pfizergate, Pieper Scandal, just to name the latest two). Her (or her Commission’s) results are anything but impressive.

Maybe it would be high time to consider a technocratic government for the European Union, but at least a technocrat as Commission President.

One without “chains” linking it (them) to political parties.

A leader chosen based on merits, not based on the flawed “Spitzenkandidat process” (or into whatever this informal process gets modified this year, starting with Renew’s “troika”), something that was meant to increase the transparency of the process for electing the president, but ended up being a façade for backroom negotiations, power plays and a process murkier than ever before.

There are a few experts/technocrats who could maybe lead the EU through the current storm of crises. Mario Draghi is one of them.

In fact, he already has some expertise with leading a technocratic government. Described by Paul Krugman as “the greatest central banker of modern times” in 2019, “Super Mario” (then the President of the European Central Bank) played a great role in combatting the Eurozone crisis and was called the “saviour of the euro”.

Economist, academic, banker and civil servant – politician is not on his resume.

He was Prime Minister of Italy between February 2021 and October 2022. Back then, when he was nominated as prime minister amidst a blooming government crisis and a COVID pandemic at its height, experts all pointed out at a great difference between him and politicians, “Draghi’s priorities are the same as those that another government would have had, the key difference is that he is not a politician and is interested above all in delivering results than staying in power. When deciding how to spend the recovery fund, his priority will be maximising impact not being re-elected”.

And that meant all the difference in the world for Italy, that successfully navigated the crisis.

There are no big scandals linked to his name. Having spent almost a decade there, he knows the Brussels bubble.

Maybe Super Mario would do his magic again and could rescue Princess Peach (a.k.a. the EU).

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