In recent decades, there has been a dramatic expansion of technocratic modes of governance. Powers that were previously held by national parliaments have been ceded to courts, central banks, and supranational institutions. This shift was, in part, a deliberate move by national governments to regulate highly technical policy areas and maintain price stability. It was also, in part, a consequence of hyperglobalization and the proliferation of international treaties and organizations in the past forty years.
What is generally called populism can be understood as a response to this expansion of depoliticized forms of decisionmaking. As technocratic governance has expanded, it has led to a backlash—as Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde has put it, “an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism.” The rise of populism, in turn, leads to the further expansion of technocratic governance as elites seek to insulate decisionmaking from politicians who are perceived as irresponsible or irrational. In short, there is a symbiotic relationship between technocracy and populism.
In Europe, there is a particularly acute version of this symbiosis—not least because of the EU, which is perhaps the ultimate experiment in technocratic governance. In a sense, depoliticization is the essence of what the EU does. This symbiosis between technocrats and populists plays out along the fault line between pro-Europeans and euroskeptics. In recent years, the momentum seemed to be with the populists, as the much-used metaphor of a wave suggested.
However, the coronavirus has created what might be called a technocratic moment. In this crisis, there is a clear need for executive competence and expertise—and in recent months, many have argued that this discredits populism. For example, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, wrote in April that the pandemic “brings the importance of a rational approach, expertise, and knowledge into sharp focus—principles that the populists mock or reject as they associate all of those qualities with the elite.”
Much of the foreign policy establishment in Europe is sympathetic to technocratic governance. Many foreign policy experts now feel vindicated and seem to hope that after the populist surge of recent years, the coronavirus will lead to a kind of technocratic surge. Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs and an adviser to Borrell’s predecessor, Federica Mogherini, hopes that the current crisis will result in a “return to trust in expertise and more rational government.”
Clearly, there is a place for experts in policymaking. But even in the current acute health crisis, decisions that are based on science should be subject to democratic contestation. Future questions about how to deal with the public debt that has accumulated as a result of the crisis will be even more political than decisions about imposing and lifting lockdowns.
In other words, the problems with technocracy will quickly come back into sharper focus. In particular, the question of the legitimacy of EU-level decisions will likely become more acute. A May 2020 ruling by the German Constitutional Court on the European Central Bank’s bond-buying program illustrates how economic policy is being made, to a large extent, by two institutions over which elected politicians have little sway. This has the potential to create another populist wave, even bigger than the one Europe has just experienced.
The political shocks produced by the rise of populism have forced Europe to recognize and begin to deal with the problems of technocratic governance. In particular, populism has shown that a new balance is needed between what Irish political scientist Peter Mair has called “responsive and responsible government.” If, after the coronavirus, Europe doubles down on technocracy, it would mean unlearning the lessons of the last few years and deepening, rather than resolving, the crisis of liberal democracy in Europe.
Hans Kundnani is a senior research fellow in the Europe Program at Chatham House.