Gesture politics: Beata Szydlo and Bibulus

This week the European Council met in Brussels. At the beginning of the summit, the reappointment as President of Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister of Poland, was blocked by Beata Szydlo, the current Polish Prime Minister, for domestic political reasons. Nevertheless, Tusk’s re-election was carried by 27 votes to one. In response, Szydlo refused to endorse the summit’s conclusions, which meant that for the first time ever the document summarising them was ‘supported by 27 Members of the European Council, but it did not gather consensus, for reasons unrelated to its substance’ (credit to whoever drafted that nicely understated turn of phrase). Cue strong words on the Polish side, more measured ones from Brussels, and headlines about ‘EU unity in ruins’.

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This symbolic defiance of normal political procedure made me think of the actions of Bibulus, consul of the Roman republic in 59 BC, a year when his fellow consul was none other than Gaius Julius Caesar. Caesar had been elected amid widespread popular support, but against the opposition of the senate, who used bribery to ensure that his colleague was Bibulus, a reliably establishment figure (any parallels with the present day are not as simple as they might seem, although they’re certainly worth acknowledging). This fissure in Roman politics had been deepening for years. Caesar did not begin by seeking open conflict, but one of his first acts was to try to have a law passed enabling widespread land redistribution (another issue that had rumbled on for a long time). The ‘conservatives’, led by the arch-traditionalist Cato, resisted, even when Caesar ostentatiously insisted its provisions were reasonable and not – at least, not obviously – designed to boost his popularity further. So he took the law directly to the people, at which point his colleague Bibulus refused flatly to let it pass, despite great popular enthusiasm. Bibulus then let it be known that, on every day when the assembly that would pass the law could meet, he would ‘watch the sky’ for bird omens, an act that would invalidate any meeting and its decisions on that day (regardless of whether any omens were spotted).

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Cicero reports what happened next: Caesar tried to organise an assembly before dawn, the ‘conservatives’ tried to obstruct it, and after mutual intimidation the law was eventually passed. Bibulus was bullied into staying at home for the rest of his year as consul, and continued to invoke a kind of ‘watching the sky’ procedure in an attempt to invalidate future legislation. Caesar, swelled by his success, dominated the senate from then on. Donald Tusk is no Julius Caesar of course, although it’s certainly plausible that after this week’s events the current Polish government will further entrench itself at home rather than engage with Brussels. But the story of Bibulus, and the questions of irreconcilable politics, populism, and the ‘will of the people’ and who really represents it, is certainly pertinent today.

 

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