The arch-architect of the eurozone, former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, once said that he’d been forced to act “like a dictator” to push through European unification. Despite what the public wanted (or thought they wanted), Kohl – and other like-minded politicians – bulldozed through what they thought was best for millions of people.
And looking at Greece’s ultimate showdown with the European Union (EU) machine, things hardly seem to have changed at all. Greek citizens voted to ignore euro-imposed austerity – and yet, despite objections, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras returned to Athens this week with a deal that was arguably even worse than the one the public emphatically threw out.
Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agrees that Greece needs debt relief – 30 years of it, at that. But what Tsipras returned with was little relief, and more austerity.
So what is it that bends strong-headed politicians like Tsipras and makes them yield to the meisters of centralist institutions like the EU?
And this isn’t just a ‘Euro-politician’ issue. Let’s not forget that the only reason that the UK has won a referendum on Europe, was ultimately due to public support for an outsider party, Ukip. There’s no way any of the mainstream parties wanted to hear what the public had to say on the issue of ever more centralised power in Brussels.
To put it bluntly, politicians of every hue have an uncanny habit of “going dictator” on us. Why? I don’t have the answer, but here are three of the most plausible motivations I can think of – let me know your own views in the comments section (keep it civil).
First off, one can’t rule out the appeal of joining an elite club of statesmen. Tony Blair was widely flagged as a potential leader of the EU – and indeed most probably would have been, but for the fact that Britain couldn’t meet the euro harmonisation conditions. And that left poor old Blair out in the cold.
Of course, not everyone fancies leading Europe. For others there are lucrative positions in banks and investment groups at the heart of a centralised system. Indeed, Blair found his way into many a lucrative hotseat.
As I read company reports, it’s hard to ignore the number of board seats taken by former politicians. The fact is, many multinationals, let alone the banks, love the centralised approach to government – and they’ll promote any politician that feels the same way. For the banks, belonging to a large central power means they’re underwritten by a nice big entity. Thank heavens for RBS it was part of the UK. And for any multinational, the reams of regulation offered by centralist institutions like the EU create barriers to entry for any upstart rivals.
Interestingly, over recent years, we’ve even seen a revolving door develop, whereby former City bigwigs have taken up political positions too. But let’s not get too conspiratorial.
A higher purpose (also known as egomania)?
Read enough political memoirs, and you start to realise that the average politician has an unwavering sense of moral purpose – or so they tell us. These people want to change the world. And such goals often require help from up above. And by that I mean the centralised institutions above the level of the nation state.
In order to achieve the individual’s ‘significant goal’, co-operation is required. They call it diplomacy. And they put in place an army of stooges and diplomats to make it happen. If they can achieve a significant goal, they’re on the way to a meaningful epitaph – and of course, some bragging rights along the way. That’s not to mention the book deal, or the odd (and extremely lucrative) after-dinner speech.
So do these moralistic, or even hubristic goals really just come down to money, once again?
Maybe there’s more…
You can’t handle the truth!
I’m reminded of the line, delivered so passionately by Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) in A Few Good Men. When faced with having to justify his rather dubious moral code, his excuse was epic: “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”
I suspect that once in power, many politicians begin to err towards Jessup’s way of thinking – that the important decisions involved in running a country can’t be left to the whim of the public. In fact, I suspect that many a man on the street believes this too; thus deferring important decisions to the political elite. As such, politicians on all sides tend to coalesce. The ideas are no longer as varied and thoughtful as those of the average public.
Tsipras was undoubtedly told some home truths once he’d taken his country to the brink of euro ejection. Remember, he had been an outsider. He was voted in off the back of views that chimed with the public. His (now ex-)finance minister, Varoufakis hadn’t ever had any political bent, but came in to ‘save Greece’.
But Tsipras has suddenly yielded to the centre. What on earth did they tell him?
Of course, this type of indoctrination stretches further than economic stratagems. There’s a notion that the public doesn’t understand, and can’t be trusted to back the ‘right’ decisions.
This is, of course, the same sort of thinking that leads to any sort of dictatorial state, from either side of the political spectrum. And it also tends to ignore the fact that history shows that centralisation tends to deliver awful outcomes.
Have we thus ended up with a charade of democracy, where the central policy unit plans direction? Sounds conspiratorial, I know. But it’s hard to fathom why it is that the public’s voice is always subjugated to the point that it’s only offered a say in extremis. And even then, any referendum ‘a la grec’, can be ignored!
It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the youthful and ever charismatic Tsipras as his career progresses. He might have made enemies, but I suspect he’s found some powerful allies within the central machine too. He must at the very least get a book out of it!