Mark Leonard, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, recently discussed an important trend that looms over the European project. Commenting on the recent scandalous statements by the Germany populist politician Thilo Sarrazin and the disavowal of his position by leading German politicians, Leonard voiced his concern that if ‘the establishment cartel turns [populists like Sarrazin] into outcasts rather than arguing with their views’, they will be able to tap into an ever-growing ‘reservoir of pent-up political frustration’. Leonard goes on by stressing that it is particularly worrying that ‘Germany’s leaders are now trying to treat foreign politicians who question German orthodoxy the same way they treat their own populists’. German responses to the question of a Greek referendum on the Euro give a telling example of this. On one hand, Merkel and Sarkozy forced Prime Minister Papandreou out of office when he came up with the idea of a referendum about the Euro last December. On the other hand, Merkel herself was trying to use this idea when helping the mainstream centre-right party Nea Democratia (New Democracy) in the 17th June elections. It is no surprise that leftist Greek SYRIZA could improve its results in the same elections.
However, the real question is ‘to what extent this conduct by German politicians is unique?’. Certainly decisions such as ousting Papandreou from office and interference into the Greek electoral campaign could have been made only in Berlin given Germany’s economic and political clout. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the predominance of a technocratic non-political paradigm is an exclusively German phenomenon. On the contrary, one can observe radicalisation of the political discourse in other EU Member States. This demonstrates that frustration about the mainstream and technocratic paradigm manifests itself across European borders. Mainstream political parties lose their electoral basis to the radicals, both to the extreme right and the populist left. To some extent, the economic downturn, austerity or immigration issues condition this loss. However, these are not all the reasons. Another serious reason is the growing resentment by the broader public of the ever-increasing professionalisation and cartelisation of political life and party politics. And this resentment does not target only national governments. The European project has also become its subject.
By looking at the newly-emerging political winners, such as the Five Star Movement in Italy or the ultra-right Golden Dawn and leftist SYRIZA in Greece, one will notice that despite all their ideological differences these parties have at least one common feature: they gained public popularity campaigning on Euroscepticist (or even anti-EU) and anti-corruption slogans. Many Greek voters, who supported SYRIZA and the Golden Dawn, stated that they do not believe these parties will solve their problems. But they voted for them because they were fed up with the old faces of Greek politics who have no idea about the ‘average citizen’s life’. This deep scepticism regarding the elitist nature and the technocratic paradigm of the European project was shared by a range of European thinkers ranging from Habermas to Solana and Delors.
It is worth mentioning that it is not only European intellectuals and political leaders who share this concern about the European project. In an interview with one of the top EU administrators, I had a chance to discuss the new EU recruitment system. The diplomat acknowledged that the new testing system puts all the candidates in more or less equal conditions at the initial stage, but he also stated his disappointment by saying:
The EU seems to have fallen prey of occupational psychologists. Our exams help us to pick the smartest and brightest candidates, but these abilities come at a certain price. On the one hand, they can consume and analyse highly complex texts at a very high speed, but on the other hand, many of them do not seem to have had long-standing interest in the European project. They can also process huge amounts of numeric data and identify patterns in a vast volume of new information, which is important for a good technocrat or consultant. But at the same time, I can hardly imagine that this generation of the European elite will be able to produce a bold idea or to make a brave step without calculating how successful they are going to be. I am not sure they will be able to do what they believe is right and to follow their vision, challenging conventions and not being discouraged by the risks of being rejected.
This scepticism has been also enhanced by numerous critical comments about the lesson that the EU has drawn from the financial crisis of 2008 and new challenges to the EU’s role internationally. Once it became clear that the EU was going to meet the above challenges by establishing a set of new institutions and instruments, such as the European Supervisory Authorities and the European External Action Service, many critics came to the same point that when the European elites run out of ideas or are unable to come up with a new policy, they create a new institution. Some others put it in more sophisticated phrasing saying that the overproduction of institutions can become another telling indicator of the intellectual deadlocks of the European project. One might argue that the new institutions charged with specific tasks are the best instrument to deal with problems on a pan-European scale. But even if it is so, the scepticism about this technocratic/institutionalist way of dealing with challenges indicates that the way these institutions are introduced is not a type of practice that contributes to re-articulation of the European idea and engagement with the broader public over the European project. Good as it was for the 20th century, the Monnet method should, probably, be balanced by bringing the politics back.
Therefore, though worrying as it is, the example of Germany is not unique. It has numerous analogies on various levels in Europe. The frustration about the European project and current leadership can have different dynamics and paths of development in different countries. However this trend seems to have the same undercurrents: technocratisation of politics both at European and national levels leads to the alienation of citizens from politics and the radicalisation of citizens’ preferences. There is a high risk that, if all these trends resonate, this will create problems more serious than we have seen in the last decade.
Vsevolod Samokhvalov is a PhD student at the Department of Politics and International Studies in Cambridge, working on EU-Russia Relations. He obtained his BA from Odessa National University (Ukraine) and MA from the University of Athens. He worked as BBC correspondent for Greece and Cyprus and as research fellow with the International Centre for Black Sea Studies. His main focus of interest is EU-Russia relations, international politics and post-communist trajectories of Eastern Europe.