Viewed 207 times | Published on 2023-08-24 15:53:00 | words: 9525
Did you notice the sharp increase in visibility of Italian politicians over the last few weeks?
Well, it started few months ago, but now it is a full-fledged "long-tail" election campaign for the next European Parliament elections, due in 2024.
And, just for good measure, some are also thinking about a potential to extend those elections with a spate of local elections and, why not, some referenda or even an early call for national elections.
Hence, the continuous mix of European, national, local "call to arms".
No, it is not political fiction- it is ordinary "why not?" political style in Italy- we like to add "baggage" to anything.
As some foreigners told me in the past, sometimes when reading what was written and said in Italy about Brussels or European elections or the European Parliament sounded as if we were on a different plane of reality.
Usually I said something on the line of: the European elections are used to settle national scores, e.g. in the 1980s was already said that those "shipped" to the European Parliament used to be those with no political future in Italy, a kind of XX century "promoveatur ut admoveatur"- giving them a sinecure while keeping them busy but as far as possible from where they would influence Italian politics.
Gradually, that evolved... but, considering the average presence at the European Parliament of our Members, allow me to have some doubts about the supposed evolution and decoupling of national and European politics.
Before discussing the main theme of this article, accelerating integration, and sharing some ideas, would like to start with some introductory material, about the concept of "democratic deficit" and short-sighted but highly popular leadership.
These are the sections within this article:
part 1- context
_ the European Union's democratic deficit
_ après-moi le déluge leadership
_ cultural cameos across Europe since the 1990s
part 2- proposals
_ rebalancing the four freedoms
_ stepping forward: accelerating rights harmonization
PART 1- CONTEXT
The European Union's democratic deficit
If you lived within the European Union from before the Brexit brouhaha started, you heard often the concept "democratic deficit".
It is associated with the evolution from the 1950s European Communities to the present European Union (post-Lisbon Treaty), with the parallel track of evolutions, including the famous "four freedoms".
Whenever I talk or write about "four freedoms", I know that they mean two different things for my readers within the European Union, and those "across The Pond", as some English connections and friends half-jokingly used to say (others further qualified by saying "former colonies across The Pond").
The oldest one is FDR's speech:
As America entered the war these "four freedoms" - the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear - symbolized America's war aims and gave hope in the following years to a war-wearied people because they knew they were fighting for freedom. (from FDR's Library website)
The European Union version was dovetailing with a January 1989 speech, before the Fall of the Berlin Wall, later that same year:
"But - as I have often said in recent months - you cannot fall in love with the single market. [...] This is why I am constantly stressing the need not only for a frontier-free area but also for the fanking policies which will open up new horizons for the men and women who make up this Community of ours."(Jacques Delors, former President of the European Commission in a speech to the European Parliament on 17 January 1989).
So, in both cases seem aligned to be an inclusive and political concept, not a technocratic one.
Anyway, in the same document from the Institut Delors I extracted that quote from, there is also this quote:
"European leaders have said many times that membership means accepting the "four freedoms" of goods, capital, services and people. [...] And that is why both sides in the referendum campaign made it clear that a vote to leave the EU would be a vote to leave the Single Market." (Theresa May, British Prime Minister in her statement on the Brexit negotiations on 17 January 2017).
So, while few months before the Fall of the Berlin Wall the Four Freedoms also in Europe represented an aspirational shared cultural change target, by 2017 had become a list of technicalities.
Anyway, as I saw since the 1980s (the first mention of the European Four Freedoms à la Delors were in 1986, the year I officially started working in my first job, for an Italian IT subsidiary of an American consulting firm), times and again had to confirm that those four freedoms applied mainly to companies and assets (including employees), not to people as individual citizens.
For the sake of keeping this post relatively short and relatively focused, will avoid sharing my personal experiences as European citizen in Europe having to exercise those Four Freedoms within the European Union, including in my own country after living abroad.
The "cameos" I referred to within the title therefore will share what I saw mainly in what in the 1990s were called "Transitional Economies", i.e. former Soviet Bloc (or, in business terms, COMECON) countries, directly and through "locals" who shared their observations while I was living in Brussels (from mid-2000s), and also in contacts while I was routinely visiting Brussels (from the late 1990s, while was based in London).
The vote for the 2004 proposed European Constitution resulted in the 2005 referendum in France and The Netherlands that torpedoed the Constitution.
Then, we had the Lisbon Treaty that changed the framework of reference, but, looking at what happened since then whenever there was a crisis affecting the European Union, we are still far far away from making a memory of the past our "democratic deficit".
Yes, the European Parliament extended its political relevance, a long cry from what some decades ago nicknamed "paper mill": all statements, little substance or impact.
So, despite what some in UK think, Brexit was not a catalyst- was merely the removal of a fig leaf, an excuse for inaction.
I was one of those that said that proposed European Constitution was boring, written by lawyers for lawyers, not for citizens.
Or: yet another bureaucratic paperweight balancing existing interests, not the inspirational shared framework, "social contract", that was expected.
And it was "sold" even more boringly, with the usual whiff of arrogance "we know best, trust us also if you have no clue what we are talking about".
Frankly, the smell of the same communication approach was within the anti-Brexit campaign: being right, unless you get the message through, is not enough, if asking for voters to bet their future on what you offer.
So, many of the messages said during the Brexit campaign from those against Brexit were proved through for e.g. villages who used to receive a windfull from funding to keep alive small villages in remote areas, despite their political irrelevance, but then discovered that political relevance matters when European funding is to be replaced by national funding (do not take my word at face value, just have a look e.g. at articles on The Guardian after Brexit).
What we saw since the Covid crisis started officially in 2020 was often a confirmation of that old "democratic deficit" concept, but compressed in time and expanded in long-term impacts, while being extended also to the European institutions distribution of roles: choices made from the top without democratic scrutiny.
I shared in the past how I disagree with those who seem to think that the "Monnet" method that has been used in previous rounds of integration is a suitable approach for the XXI century (have a look here to see my past commentary).
You can force-feed reforms e.g. as done under the current European Commission following first the Covid pandemic, then the invasion of Ukraine and energy footprint repositioning, with an encore of the Monnet method.
Only: this time, all the various initiatives pushed through since the Covid pandemic looked from the outside as if really led not from the political side (Council and Parliament), but from the technocratic side (European Commission and staff) of the European institution- as if the political sides were rubber-stamping what was pre-packaged by the technical side, due to time constraints.
Further widening the "democratic deficit" of the European Union, in my opinion, and creating the issue of cascading then from the European political side down to the national political side the "selling" to citizens of those pre-packaged reforms.
Yes, having the silver lining of funding (the Recovery and Resilience Facility first, then others) helped- but only as a short-term boost.
As, eventually, a significant chunk of the funding was be provided by markets, i.e. to be eventually repaid after the term of the incumbent European Commission.
I would have had no qualms if those initiatives had been pushed by the European Parliament (i.e. direct political representation of citizens), in a joint effort with the Council (i.e. representation of Member States via their Governments and, therefore, also of at least the majority or a plurality of their citizens large enough to keep in office a Government).
Will not summarize here what I wrote about the Italian PNRR and other elements of the EU NextGenerationEU, as of 2023-08-24, within 58 articles, and shared also on datasets on Kaggle and documentation on GitHub.
I shared also in the past my "local" complaint that, in order to read the attachments to the Italian National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR in Italian), instead of visiting the Recovery and Resilience Facility website as could do for other major EU Member States, had to wait for somebody from the Italian Parliament to "leak" on archive.org the files.
My point is: increasingly, the European Commission approach is becoming similar to the one adopted mainly since the start of what we Italians call "Second Republic" in Italy, since the 1990s: pushing through government decrees, and then pushing through conversion into laws, claiming that urgency requires converting the political debate/amendment routine practically into rubber-stamping (as sometimes, in Italy, stacks of highly detailed pages were sent to the Italian Parliament hours or even handfuls of minutes before the actual discussion and vote).
Après-moi le déluge leadership
There is an old political joke associated with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: if he were to pick up the phone, who would answer for Europe on the other side?
In the past, we had sometimes meetings abroad with a "collection" of Presidents of different European Union institutions representing, as a collective, the European Union; then, we had a representative for foreign affairs (see on Wikipedia a description), but when Ashton stepped down, the transition was initially not for the full portfolio of her predecessor.
Still in 2012, despite what was expected after reforms, The Wall Street Journal could publish an article with the title "Kissinger Still Lacks a Number to Call Europe", whose incipit was quite direct: Europe lacks a strategic concept that would allow it to become a superpower and, despite decades of integration, doesn't have a clear representative for other countries' leaders to contact.
Since then, it has been a routine of hearing some newly appointed European leaders claim that now Kissinger would have a number to call- but often this was followed by initiatives that involved only few Member States, and initiated by Member States.
In recent years, before and after Covid and the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, routinely Member States were unable to project a single, unified, coordinated action.
Hence, probably, some of the leeway given to European Commission decision-making and sometimes even communicating decisions first, having a political mandate later.
Despite the name, European Union, Europe often still has a "variable geometry", almost as those planes that can alter their own geometry depending on the operational needs (here): 27 on more mundane choices, a "coalition of the willing" whenever there are differences.
Which was, actually, the fig leaf that Brexit should have removed, as even I had heard a UK diplomat in Brussels state that their own concept was to be part of different aggregations on different dossiers, but being always there- something that sounded a lot like the tongue-in-cheek joke within "Yes, Minister", the BBC TV series (see here).
In Italy, this difference between communication and reality is often coupled with something that became more common since the 1990s, during what we call in Italian "Seconda Repubblica" (basically, after a major string of corruption scandals wiped out the major political party since WWII).
It is what I described in few articles about our national obsession with leaders: we routinely look for somebody who can save us from ourselves.
Look just at those with most readers, e.g. Il paese dei leader, read by 14k visitors, and From #Mattei to #MES / #ESM - #Europe and #Italy, almost 8k visitors- or any of those in the "most read" section.
I hold an Italian passport, was born in Italy, and, after working in multinational environments since the 1980s, and living abroad from the late 1990s to the early 2010s, I have been back living and working in Italy since 2012: but, as I wrote in the past, not my choice, and I am still more of a foreigner in Italy than an Italian who lived abroad.
Therefore, my perspective is both as an insider and an outsider: since my return in 2012, I saw how little my fellow Italians know of their political, social, economic history- and replaced it with what in French could be called "fantasmes"- in this case, selectively looking at the past to have a logical lead to what is assumed to be the present and... the manifest destiny.
Quite entertaining when, as it happened often since the 1990s, the mix taking the helm (always coalition governments) keeps changing, but that narrative simply goes "history shopping" to achieve the same results- as if being elected were not enough of a mandate to define policies.
Probably this is due to another local tradition: after an election, it seems as if the new leader had been supported by many who did vote for other wannabe leaders, not just the voters who selected the leader.
A country of natural born turncoats who almost never lose elections due to their own detachment from voters' reality, apparently.
While, if required by their role, everybody is able to find interesting ways to sell their own transformation as if it were a natural evolution of the previous opposite choices that they did.
Do not worry: most of those "transitioning" will find an equally good reason to shuffle again.
Incidentally: also if we cheer for a new leader, and also if we are not visible enough to need to have to explain our shuffling back-and-forth, as soon as there are signs of "structural damage" to a new leader's ability to hold the leadership role... I let you complete this phrase.
Well, those who know me know that I use "we" whenever I have to say something negative about the group I belong to- also when I was managing teams on behalf of partners- "we made a mistake" "we should have considered better all the circumstances", etc.
I found just correct to apologize with "we" for individuals' mistakes, also when I had just taken over the role to representing the company with the customer and leading the suppliers and internal resources that provided services to the customer.
Then, promptly started to negotiate a way forward (and reserving to face-to-face or team discussion sorting out what happened, why, and how to avoid an encore).
Hence, on this specific national political attitude, personally whenever decided to vote for somebody and that somebody lost, did not assume that those voting for the winner(s) were dumb, ill-informed, mindless, corrupt, mafiosi, etc.
In a representative democracy, you can win an election and lose an election- there will be another one.
A little bit akin to what said Churchill about Italy across the end of WWII: there were 45 millions of fascists during the war, and 45 millions of anti-fascists after the war, yet polls did not show 90 millions of Italians (the figures are more-or-less).
If you lose, unless there is a common good to care about, I do not think that suddenly jumping on the winners' wagon is an approach with a long-term sustainability and viability, as it only generates what I saw since the 1990s, first in Italy, then from abroad, then again Italy: it seems that our Italian creativity has been extended to spawning countless Foundations, Quangos, companies supposedly private but controlled by public sector entities, and assorted watchdogs and regulators- all multiplying seats (often for "beached" politicians, notably after the recent shrinking down of both Houses of the Italian Parliament, that removed many seats, and created the need to find occupations for many and their "clientes").
There is a significant cognitive dissonance from the aspirational side of these "carpet bagging supporters".
They are able to switch their support from one leader to another, and extol the virtues of those they support while discounting the capabilities and motivation of... those they supported before.
But that is not the cognitive dissonance I was thinking about: it is their (temporary) faith in leaders who are quite aware of "quality" of their support.
Net result? In Italy, any political majority is akin to what I described with signing partnership or delivery contracts in Italy- the first step of a negotiation, not its last- just shifting to a different plane of negotiation whenever opportunity arises, or regulation allows to say that one party is the holder of the data and associated truth (there are legal means to re-balance the latter, but enforcing them is quite a hurdle, as I saw since 2018, and shared in the past).
Apparently, most leaders in Italy have a perception of timelines that is more focused on leaving signs of their passage, than on doing something that would stay in place long after they left office.
Since the 1980s (not just the 1990s), it was a routine to read on newspapers of "ad personam" decrees, laws, regulations- i.e. tailored to support a specific entity, political party, or even individual (not necessarily a current holder of public office).
It is curious how this attitude in most Italian leaders gradually took over since the 1980s: a kind of "après-moi, le déluge" approach to the exercise of power.
Italy is, "in sedicesimo", representing the same decision-making issues of our European Union with 27 Member States, an assorted array of institutions that de facto represent citizens (Parliament), governments (Council), regions (COR), EU bureaucracy (Commission) and, as shown by a recent scandal and other events, have powers whose exercise is more "fluid" than would seem from reading Treaties etc.
I know that many will disagree with this characterization of each EU institution (I willingly left aside others).
The point is: in Italy, we have too many "tribes" with competing interests, and each one, at different times, is appealing directly to citizens and corporate citizens, without a single unifying cultural convergence.
Beside the official political parties, newspapers nicknamed an informal "party of the Mayors", another one "party of the Prefects" (police generals representing locally the Central Government), to say nothing about other administrative layers (e.g. Regions, Metropolitan Areas), plus of course shared interests between some industrial regions in the North, other regions in the South, regions who have special autonomy rights, etc.
Counterbalancing our tribal nature with "strong lonely leaders at the top" is the shortcut that we in Italy tried to adopt way too often across our history- and not just in the latest few decades.
And you can see the actual results: as I keep repeating to my fellow Italians, the State (and also the European Union) is too complex to be treated as if it were a grocery shop on the corner, with an owner and a couple of employees.
Political guidance and leadership implies both having antennas within the structure (as bureaucracies have an inclinations of creating their own concept of "common good" and "reality"- not just the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower talked about), and the ability to reshuffle as needed according to policy, instead of, as often done in Italy by governments since the 1990s, preparing "skeleton/framework laws", and then let bureaucracies fill them with content.
Not an easy task but, frankly, if you prepare for decades to get at the helm of a government, instead of being just parachuted into your role (it happened often, in the latest couple of decades), you should know what you are dealing with- and, if you do not (parachuted), then find those who do and that you can trust to implement your policies, not just building their own next career step within bureaucracies, à la "Yes, Minister".
The flip side of the coin is that, if you have "me me me" leaders thinking as if they were a new Louis XIV, top bureaucrats should be able to be listened at when they talk about continuity (i.e. doing changes that are sustainable beyond the current election term).
Let's now shift to something more amusing- seeing the evolution of Europe across real-life examples.
Cultural cameos across Europe since the 1990s
A first cultural cameo actually goes centuries back: being the Italian peninsula partitioned in countless states and statelets, it was actually exporting diplomats across Europe: a kind of talent pool for new and emerging diplomacies.
But the cameos I wanted to talk about are of a different nature: how I saw Europe, feet on the ground, post-1989, when the Fall of the Berlin Wall was the highly visible single event of a domino effect that started earlier, and how saw Europe evolve.
Small events can sometimes generate a snowball effect- I shared once in a while a video version of what I could call the "Schwaboski incident".
1989- during a supposedly routine boring press conference in East Germany, a journalist (I think an Italian journalist from Repubblica) asked exactly from when travel would be allowed across the border, and he said "ab sofort"- "from now".
Suddenly, there was a flood of people at the gates (toward West Germany), ready to cross the border with West Berlin, but apparently Border Police had not been informed.
At the time, I saw that just on a TV set in an hotel or restaurant in Italy, during some of my travels around Italy for business (since 1988, I was often each day in a company or two in a different town, to build, improve, review, "push" decision support models in a variety of industries).
Then, I remember in the early 1990s when we Europeans had selective sanctions against Yugoslavia, due to the Balkan Wars.
Some did, some did not, so that I found myself with the curious issue of having a colleague working for our Italian branch who was visiting a customer there and having some issues, but, being our company a branch of a French company, central offices refusing to give support as they had to enforce the sanctions.
I went around for travel in 1991 to visit Ludwig's Castles in Bavaria, with a friend and colleague, and we went around by car- so, I was able to see how things were evolving in terms of presence, but was later, in 1992, when I used to visit my German then-girlfriend, had a chance to see how things were evolving after the Berlin Wall demise.
She was working as city planner in a small village nearby Stuttgart, and I was interested in architecture since decades, and we met in Amsterdam, visiting a bit together due to our shared interest.
Actually, we had planned to move to The Netherlands, as for a city planner back then it was were many innovative experiments were ongoing, and one of my customers was actually an Italian company belonging to a French and a Dutch group.
So, I had agreed with that customer to become a financial controller as there was the opportunity to work a short week, then spend my week-ends in Germany, and eventually shift to The Netherlands.
Well, there were some changes, so, as could not have my week split between Italy and Germany, eventually accepted a last minute offer (right before Christmas 1992, to start after January 6 1993).
It was an offer for a much larger cultural and organizational change role than that that, as freelance management consultant, had accepted in early 1990 for a former colleague and his consulting startup, before accepting in mid-1990 to join the Italian branch of a French company.
Anyway, it seems that travel is my destiny: also for the French company had to travel around Italy almost on a daily basis- so much that my employer relocated me to Milan (easier logistics), and instead of a company car gave me an apartment in Milan plus an expense account.
Visiting in my spare time my girlfriend meant that we went around Germany, starting near Stuttgart (where she lived), and going each time a bit further, from one side up to the "border" with Bavaria, and from the other side up to Koeln.
While going around, I saw also some areas that used to be major USA "barracks-turned-into-self-contained-cities" since after WWII, and now were being vacated: an obvious consequence of the split of the USSR (the "peace dividend", was one of the descriptions used back then) and, was told back then, something that still Germany had to identify how to reuse.
Another cameo at the time that personally lived between Germany and Italy was, of course, when the Italian Lira (local precursor to the Euro) was kicked out, and instead of the usual 700-720 LIT per DEM (the German precursor of the Euro) I had to pay up to 1200 LIT per DEM- in barely six months.
As a point of reference: basically, in six months we went from me paying proportially two third of the restaurant bill (we had agreed to split proportionally to our salary- as a German, my girlfriend would not accept that I paid the bill), to see that I paid a third of the bill.
We went back into the European precursor of the Euro not at 720 LIT per DEM, but much, much higher, albeit not high enough to counterbalance the actual loss of value- but will let you read elsewhere what this implied for a country that transforms raw materials that are imported from abroad, and imported most of the energy, directly and indirectly, while exported in a currency that was not aligned with its value.
Since 1987, many of my customers had been within the banking industry, and since 1990 I had had a banking outsourcing customer where I was involved in projects identified by the CEO (Direttore Generale), including a branch information system were I was assigned as an advisor on methodology to the manager charged of representing the customer within the project team, composed of management consultants and organizational managers/directors of banks.
Hence, in my visits in Germany (but also in other countries: between summer 1991 and summer 1993, went around also in Austria, Scandinavia, The Netherlands, Czechoslovakia), looked at how banking and related services were organized- and did the same in my visits in the late 1990s in the Baltics.
Was interesting to visit in spring 1993 Prague with my by then former girlfriend, after visiting Vienna for year end 1992 and beginning 1993.
In December 1992, Czechoslovakia was peacefully split in two countries.
Prague was a favorite location to be based in for Western managers who had to work in former COMECON countries.
Locals shared a complaint that was to hear few years later in Latvia, and related by others a decade later in Brussels about Poland and other former COMECON countries post-1989: foreigners were pushing up prices and, where allowed, directly taking over assets at discounted prices.
I shared in the past few "vignettes" about what I saw in Prague, including how a local newspaper in English warned foreigners on how to consider contracts e.g. about purchasing an apartment and then seeing that the former owner still kept coming back to pick up and leave his fishing tools.
Anyway, will shift now to another area of the former Soviet Bloc, specifically Latvia.
The first time I visited, I remembered what I had read about the Bank Baltja scandal, and how the European Commission had launched a program to stabilize the Latvian banking industry (can read about it online), as otherwise the risk was that Latvia, on the threshold of accession to the European Union, would become a failed state.
When I visited, I remember noticing how many bank branches from foreign banks were there, but there are three cameos that will never forget.
One, was going to exchange few hundred dollars (as it was the main currency that I saw used as storage of value) at a small corner shop, to get the local currency, and seeing in front of me an old woman with two shopping plastic bags asking if she could do the same.
Well, those two shopping plastic bags were filled with stacks of US hundred dollar bills.
Obviously, not her own money (and I understood the "muscles" that were nearby)- but the exchange was done under her name.
Then, in a nice square (I think in fronto of a TV or radio building), a protest of retirees who had their retirement benefits paid with a link to the old USSR currency, but had to cope with prices and the new recent introduction of a local national currency pegged to the GBP (in part for historical reasons, I was told- as UK when USSR annexed the Baltics "hosted" on one of its ships the Latvian executive).
Also, my Latvian friends told me that they half-jokingly said that Latvia had become a "Banana Republic"- the bananas that could not be exported to Europe landed in Latvia, and, being cheap, you could see retirees going around with bags of bananas (there was an going "bananas war" between USA and Europe).
A decade later, when met my Latvian friends in Rome, they noticed that clothing prices in Riga were at the same level of what they saw in Rome (or even higher), for the same level of quality (they noticed how Italian small markets had clothing that they were used to see at much higher prices in shops in Riga).
While living in Brussels, some connections from Poland in Schuman told me how they had seen, after 1989, German companies who needed just a shop window purchasing the whole building, as they assumed that prices and foreign direct investment would go up, and also as recently as in July 2023 had contacts for missions in Poland that actually were really for German companies- but for reasons unknown recruiters had not seen I was based in Italy, and disclosed what were the Polish rates for those contracts requiring German skills, and it was easy to compare them with the same roles carried out in Italy, Belgium, and of course Germany.
To close this section of "vignettes" and "cameos": I was visiting London first in 1983 with friends of my parents, staying in a family home nearby Ruislip, i.e. close to one of London's airports.
Few years later, for my employer, in the late 1980s was in London for meetings and training.
Then, in the 1990s, first visited to meet customers (mainly business intelligence and data-related software companies), and in 1994 and 1995 to attend LSE's Summer School (International Political Economy), before de facto starting to settle there in 1997, to then visit once in a while after shifting to Brussels in 2005.
I was last in London few years before Brexit, but saw the growing shift, and I had been told already in 2008 how it had been changed by terrorist attacks.
After Brexit, some non-UK friends living there decided to leave UK, and was told how Brexit had changed.
As you can see from this section, what started with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Chancellor Kohl push to integrate former Soviet Bloc countries was not as easy as it seems.
Continuous events since at least when first the Brexit concept started obtaining visibility on mass media show that the European Union is still a union on paper.
PART 2- PROPOSALS
Rebalancing the four freedoms
Somebody could say that those listed above are "cameos from the past".
Frankly, as I stated about Poland (but could add more about other countries), I disagree.
Somebody who was already in business in the 1990s probably remembers the debate about the "Mutual Agreement on Investment"- whose final nail in the coffin was actually the concept that an unelected "technical" body could punish a country for not enforcing rules defined after said country joined that body: as if a Parliament had the right to surrender its right to legislate to a third party without any further potential to have a democratic say in further legislation and regulation.
Somebody (e.g. Brexiters) could say that this is exactly what is the European Union- but, again, I disagree: my criticism about the over-proactive current European Commission self-awarding a political role notwithstanding, post-Lisbon Treaty we have check and balances that are a significant step forward toward shared accountability.
Simply writing a rulebook does not generate change, as knows anybody who worked in cultural and organizational change, including just to introduce a technology that requires a completely different mindset and set of behavioral patterns to deliver value.
Over a decade ago, I was told that becoming a Member of the European Union implied getting around 200,000 pages of laws, regulations, etc to comply with and integrate within national law.
The concept being that membership implies not surrendering, but sharing decision-making on many issues, and working overall following the concept of "subsidiarity"- roughly, making decisions as close as possible to where the impact/action will happen.
The side-effects of "cherry picking" approaches to regulatory harmonization across the EU that often have been followed with European Directives (as each requires specific legislative/regulatory initiatives in each EU Member State), also with European Regulations (that instead supposedly to be enforceable across the whole of the EU), showed how implementation is something that opens the door to some "creativity" at the national level.
I remember when I was resident in UK (late 1990s) and my driving license was stolen in Belgium.
As I had not yet converted my Italian driving license into a UK one, Italy could not give me a duplicate as I was not anymore resident, while UK could not give me a driving license as they had no knowledge of my Italian driving license.
Eventually, as far as I know, that "hole" was plugged, but when I returned to Italy in 2012, discovered that, as I had never had a fine or traffic ticket, before I could get a driving license I should not just redo the exam from scratch, but see with a commission that met only few times a year to see if I could still have a driving license as... having had no fine implied that from their perspective they had no proof that they I had ever used the driving license since 1990.
When I shared that with my foreign friends in Europe and USA, it raised a good laugh.
Anyway, since returning to Italy in 2012, I saw how, frankly, it was easier to become resident in UK, first, then in Belgium, than returning in Italy, despite having an Italian passport.
I could share other examples, both about myself (an Italian citizen returning to Italy) and others (EU and non-EU citizens trying to settle in Italy, temporarily or permanently), but also sticking to the "technical" definition of the four freedoms (goods, capital, services and people), it is still easier if you are a company, not if you are an individual.
Two years ago published an article about Systemic boundaries and the fifth freedom #Italy #EU #NextGenerationEU #PNRR
Having a freedom does not imply being able to exercise it, even for rights that are supposedly part of what differentiate the European Union from other aggregation of states, e.g. linked to the charter of human rights.
An Italian for the tortures at the G8 in Genoa had to get through a 15+ years and 70k EUR ordeal of continuous denials as if he and the others claiming so were mad, before at last being acknowledged and seeing Italy introducing a law about torture
On a smaller side and significantly less critical case, in the late 1990s I had the first of many experiences with watchdogs in Europe, in that case in UK
The case was a telco operator that did not process my mobile business line order for months, and the local watchdog sent me a letter than shared with my UK colleagues as a joke.
Basically, it stated that the regulator was there to make customers and suppliers talk- if they could not solve it, they could go to court.
Well, how much of a right is if a startup with no revenue is considered on equal footing with a 700mln GBP turnover company in ability to keep dragging on and on, if they refuse to provide information?
In London, I was told by UK colleagues (late 1990s) that they called "watchdogs" something else- "pussycats".
As were routinely staffed with people from industry, industry through a fee financed watchdogs.
Creating a level playing field between suppliers and citizen-consumers was apparently not a top priority.
A decade later, found quite common a whiff of that in interactions with Italian watchdogs in both the private and public sector.
If the corporate counterpart played sandbagging, or even claimed that its own data were the only acceptable truth, you could only look for procedural mistakes, missed formal confirmations, and the like- still, after having documented, there would be no real right to redress.
At least, in UK, for a banking issue, a former banker who was a consulting colleague told me how it worked there: write to the top, and get an answer, after sandbagging gets you stuck- and it worked.
The democratic deficit represented by both how laws regulations etc are designed and implemented, and how the four freedoms (and other rights) are accessible to consumer-citizens is well represented by the continuous stream of posts that I get on Linkedin from various entities from Brussels.
Since at least when the incumbent commission has been in office, before the Covid pandemic started, keep receiving curious posts.
Those posts are an attempt to show how the European Union gave us rights, bypassing the national and European political level, and communicating directly with citizens (another typical sign of the Italian style of leadership since the 1990s): but focused on minutiae.
Yes, I appreciate that eventually mobile phone chargers will have the same standard and we will avoid the ludicrous practice of the 1990s, when two GSM mobiles from the same manufacturer had different plugs, so that you could not share them.
And, as in the late 1990s to early 2000s paid outrageous "roaming" fees while living in UK and working across the European Union, appreciated the cut down of roaming feeds- also if those cuts and "free roaming" did not really work (I saw in UK and Germany years ago that Italian operators opened the connection, but did not really let to use the connection, so I had to use a local connection).
Or the supposed rights for reimbursements if your train or plane is severely delayed, or your luggage is lost: but could share more cameos of how really works- and how really I saw those rights exercised and applied immediately by Ryanair in Belgium for a flight to Pisa... only after some loudly complaining passengers told that they were Member of Parliament.
Many of those linkedin posts on minutiae are actually of interest to those working within the European Union institutions.
How many ordinary citizens have the need of a monthly "free data roaming" right of few GBs?
The exercise of most of those rights requires often the use of (paid) intermediaries, who for either a fee on the outcome, or membership, would represent you and follow through the shenanigans involved in navigating sandbagging.
Stepping forward: accelerating rights harmonization
Allow me to don my "technocrat" thinking hat derived from my 1980s-2020s experience in business number crunching and cultural/organizational change.
I think that creating further regulations to "equalize" between consumers and suppliers or authorities would only add overhead.
We need consumer rights that can be exercised by any citizen.
Actually: including non-citizen residents: I frankly would stick to the mantra of "no taxation without representation", i.e. giving vote to any resident taxpayers, not just citizens- but that's another can of worms.
On the latter: as I shared in Brussels with others almost two decades ago, I hope that my fellow centre-left political companions will not make the mistake that somebody on the extreme right did decades ago, assuming that giving the vote to Italians resident abroad would add votes to the extreme right- and got up to 2/3 of votes for the centre-left.
In my contacts with many immigrants since the late 1990s, when I visited Italy once in a while but, being resident abroad, new immigrants opened up with me, many sounded as aiming for something that the centre-right was eager to provide, e.g. in or around 2005 there was a statistics from the national statistical bureau that stated that 1/3 of new businesses were created by immigrants, who represented barely 5% of the Italian population.
We live in the XXI century- hence, exercising rights should gradually become "unmediated", i.e. no need for human mediators, but regulation itself (via technology) should be able to cope with different audiences, and bridge the knowledge gap.
For a while, there will be a transition phase where people would be needed to cover for non-digital-natives who did not even become digital-immigrants, i.e. those past the "digital divide" (not necessarily older people, also people with no access to technological tools, connections, and knowledge).
As I said often also in previous articles, since 2012 was puzzled how many young Italians working as clerks in shops were unable to give change correctly unless they used a calculator, so much that cash registers currently seem all to have a specific function to tell how much change should be given.
Hence, being "digital native" for Tik-Tok, Instagram, etc does not necessarily imply being able to navigate our complex maze of laws and regulations, e.g. being able, in Italy, to prepare your own tax return in a country where tax laws used to be "updated" continuously (in the 1990s, I spent half a day a week just to study tax updates, as I was preparing my own tax returns for a VAT registration).
In the XXI century, being "digital native" should imply being able to access all the services that are provided by national and local authorities bureaucracies (in Italy, each one with its own workflows, confirmation patterns, messaging approach, etc).
We need to step up the concept of "continuous education"- maybe linking continuous training with some "social points" that give access to freebies?
Anyway, Italy is (believe or not) a Member State of the European Union- actually, was a founding member of the organizations that eventually blended within the European Union (including failed attempts, such as the shared defence).
In the late 1990s, while working in German Switzerland, I remember purchasing a software that delivered automatic translations.
It was perfectly bidirectional English-French, while English-German was described by locals as... English people knowing German writing in German (it was better the other way around).
I purchased also other languages at lower levels of "depth", but I must say that e.g. English-Italian was an absolute disaster.
Digging a bit around, discovered that actually the software originated from activities for the European institutions, as there is a massive body of knowledge represented by the need to translate into all the official languages of the European Union each release etc, except for working papers (often available in English, French, German).
Actually, UK leaving the EU implied that another country added English as one of its official languages: French was traditionally the language of diplomacy, but English is a de facto "lingua franca" (no pun intended), while German could further expand for obvious reasons.
Recently, shifting on privacy from a Directive-based (i.e. each country implementing) to a Regulation (the GDPR) implied few things:
_ it became immediately effective across all of European Union (with some specific "flexibilities" across to allow for national differences, e.g. fines)
_ each national watchdog is practically a "branch" of the European watchdog
_ each complaint and each document have also to be translated in English.
Hence, on data privacy too we are starting since 2018 to collect a "European Union Body of Knowledge" that could actually help in making pre-emptive choices- not just watchdogs, but also any organization considering a project etc involving personal data.
Switching to a XXI century approach, probably could be useful to have somebody in Brussels having a look at all that they collected, and think about using that as a potential real equalizer within the framework of those famous four freedoms.
There is a lot of talk about regtech (regulatory/compliance technology) as an application of AI and, frankly, if I stick to regulatory experience both on the customer side (as citizen or on behalf of other citizens) and the supplier side (as consultant having to look at various forms of compliance- from ISO9000 to SOX to process- or industry- or product-specific elements), I think that there is plenty of room for improvement.
Using technology available now, actually open source technology (no licensing costs, etc).
As I wrote in the past, in the early-to-mid-2000s prepared to set up a service for local authorities that needed to be able to decode and implement what was coming from Brussels, ranging from regulatory to reporting to filing (e.g. to access funding and grants) requirements.
All the while considering that those designing the rules had legions of experts that put together something that covered all the bases that all the experts involved assumed would be needed- while those on the receiving end had probably just a few people to write&file, but not with the business and technical depth needed to interact or clarify.
The same applied to many SMEs, the backbone of the Italian economy, who found themselves the need to interact with countless experts.
I remember that a colleague of mine in Rome back then talked about having received notice of a request for proposal about what in Italian is called "Eurosportello", i.e. a single point of contact to help companies interact with the highest efficiency and efficacy with EU offices (usually for EU projects or funding).
Well, as discussed then both in Rome and Turin with some companies (I was supporting part-time startups whenever I was in Italy), I saw that actually what was there was a cultural gap.
Recently the incumber Minister of Foreign Affairs who has a long experience in Brussels said that Italy stills lags in accessing its share of EU funding (I will let you get to Eurostat etc to see how small is the size of what we get vs. what we could get).
I remember almost two decades ago not requests based upon "we want to do this, which funding could be available to offset part of the investment risk", but upon the more mundane "what should we do to access funding".
I know that there are boutique services able to "package" projects, but the idea should be to attract funding that generates eventually revenue streams for the future (i.e. to support investments), not just to feed the current bottom line of those with the best "packaging" team.
While living in Brussels, joined a community created as an internal tool to put in touch who had been part of EU-funded project, to share expertise.
That community eventually became (more or less) what is part of joinup (you can see and join my profile at this link).
The concept was: we did a project once, it was disbanded at the end, but maybe those who were part of it would like to join more projects, or at least share their experience- but how could new project proposers find them?
Hence, the free community (at the time, being an internal tool, was done I think using Drupal, which was say a CMS created in Belgium).
I think that we need to consider something like joinup as a "backoffice" to connect the backbone of digital services expertise across the EU, and share experiences (still too few from Italy are part of it), but, at the same time, have an "app sharing" that could allow to do more pilots in few Member States, regions, local authorities across the EU, and then share not just a nifty report on the experience, but also actionable material, software etc.
To avoid inflating, I think that the "value" of what is conferred should be ldinked to some KPIs and a peer-vote (anyway, would take a lot of work to get something that is acceptable and does not become a "you scratch my back, I scratch your back", as I saw sometimes in tenders), and credit awarded for each reuse.
The idea could be that some experiment, and then either become "virtual providers" for others, or confer to a shared community, and get "credits" whenever used (e.g. an initial value for choice by a party to adopt it, and a virtual credit for each use), credit that can then be used to access others' experiments.
The key point here is: yes, we do regulations in Brussels, but should result from politically-supported negotiation, and any "tool" created to equalize access to the rights (or duties) associated with a new regulation etc should be created where the operational expertise and need exists, to ensure having continuous "antennas" to make it evolve (until all Member States are involved and all contribute).
Creating a kind of "EU Commission AI application to e-government directorate" could make sense only if it were a kind of liaison office, i.e. an "AI application Interpol", not a Gosplan.
The latter being, since the 1950s, the natural inclination of many initiatives in Brussels- generally, because Member States cannot sort it out politically between themselves, and, as often did Italy, also for some of the reforms within the PNRR, claim that was "mandate by Brussels", as this is perceived as easier to sell politically.
If you read so far, and read some of my past articles on digital transformation, you know also that there is a missing element: we, the people (yes, I am "lifting" this from the American Constitution).
Because moving forward to this collaborative, equalizing access to the four freedoms (and more), we need to involve citizens.
Hence, either via joinup or through some other community, we should do what was done for that website where you can report... the trees you planted.
There was decades ago a political regime change that was called the "carnation revolution", in Portugal.
Yes, there was another one in China, but with different results.
So, the idea is to motivate to contribute not just ideas, but results of projects, and share.
It is a kind of renewal of "wikinomics", but converted into a permanent communication and development tool.
In this case, to also maybe evolve into tempering the obsession with micro-regulation about minutiae (powerplug adapter, roaming) while everyday life of people is actually more substantially impacted if, e.g. you equalize access to some welfare and labour market access services (no, I am not referring to Europass: please...)
For individuals, if we share the same conceptual approaches (e.g. warranty, consumer rights) through EU-wide regulations (not directives), should be possible for both suppliers and customers to "vet" proposed contracts by submitting them e.g. to a website checking "smartly" if there are areas that are "iffy", instead of hearing from a watchdog years later, as it happened to me in UK, "we are there to make you both talk".
In Italy, actually used few times (not for myself) a platform to sort out issues due to telco utilities contracts.
Supposedly, should go smoothly, but... what happens when one side of the supplier agrees that has to cancel a request, but the other side sends it back to credit recovery? At best, if you catch it up in time and can read the fine prints and chart the timeline... you have to go through the threadmill again (and again).
Consumers and citizens are not hamsters- we do not enjoy getting another spin of the wheel just because somebody messed up and that somebody assumes (the principle of "sandbagging" that by UK colleague explained to me) that you get tired.
For now, let's see how creative this European Parliament elections campaign will become (and not just in Italy- there are some shared issues, in part created by the incumbent European Commission, that could affect the future of the Euro and the European Union).
So, stay tuned!