The Demise of Parliaments

August is the traditional month when parliaments recess for the summer. It offers a moment to examine why they are so enfeebled.

Across Europe, it is not only British Prime Minister Tony Blair who is accused of "presidentialism" nowadays. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder faces the same charge in the current German election campaign. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, indeed, does not even like being called Prime Minister. Because he is technically President of the Council (of ministers), he insists on using the title of President. France, of course, is a presidential democracy.

To many, "presidentialism" sounds like the American constitution; but those who suspect in today's trend another facet of the Americanization of Europe are wrong. American presidents have powers which are severely restricted by Congress via the US constitution; they are but one in a triad of separate powers. Europe's "presidential" prime ministers, on the contrary, are what a British Lord Chancellor once called, "elective dictators."

This means, above all, that they have ceased to take parliaments seriously. Some Prime Ministers rarely attend their parliaments. When they graciously consent to appear, they are treated with deference.