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Angela Merkel likes to say there is no alternative to her policies; and when she does make U-turns, she tends not to admit to them. So it was highly unusual when last week, amid growing anger about her government’s response to the pandemic, the chancellor apologised to the German people. The government had planned to put the country in a tight lockdown for five days over Easter in an attempt to curb the sharp rise in infections, but abandoned the idea after it was widely criticised.
In the early phase of the pandemic, Germany seemed to stand out as one of the few western democracies that had handled it relatively successfully. A chorus of commentators attributed this to Merkel herself and in particular to her technocratic approach, based on her background as a scientist. By contrast, they saw other countries such as the UK and the US, where “populist” leaders were in power, as mishandling the crisis.
Now, however, the roles have been reversed. Of course, the pandemic is far from over and things could change again – for example, if, as expected, vaccine rollout slows in the UK as it accelerates sharply in the EU. But for the moment, as Germany struggles with a third wave with only 14% of its citizens vaccinated, it is the UK that is seen as the success story. Earlier this month, the editor of the German tabloid Bild even ran a front page that told Brits: “We envy you!”
The current moment is the latest episode in an ongoing struggle between technocracy and populism in Europe. For the past decade, Europe has been engulfed by what has frequently but misleadingly been called a populist “wave”. But the rise of populism can itself be understood as a response to the expansion of depoliticised decision making, in particular within the EU, the ultimate model of technocratic governance. Thus, there is a kind of dialectical relationship between technocracy and populism: technocracy creates populism, which in turn leads to more technocracy in response, and so on.
A year ago, the pandemic created what might be called a technocratic moment. Suddenly, it seemed as if life and death depended on competence and expertise – and many “pro-Europeans” hoped this had discredited populism once and for all. For example, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, wrote last April that the pandemic “brings expertise and knowledge into sharp focus – principles that the populists mock or reject as they associate all of those qualities with the elite”. Thus, it was an opportunity to double down on technocracy.
During the first phase of the pandemic, the EU seemed to be strengthened. But now things look different. The economic and institutional problems around the euro had already damaged the EU’s reputation for competence during the past decade. Now the vaccine fiasco has undermined the perception that it is efficient in an even more dramatic way. The economist Paul Krugman wrote that the EU had demonstrated “the same bureaucratic and intellectual rigidity that made the euro crisis a decade ago far worse than it should have been”.
This is particularly damaging for the EU because of its long reliance on what political scientists call “output legitimacy” (that is, the legitimacy that comes from producing results) as a substitute for “input legitimacy” (that is, democracy). The damage to its reputation for competence further highlights its “democratic deficit”. At the same time, a much-vaunted Conference on the Future of Europe, which was originally meant to include citizens and find ways to democratise the EU, has degenerated into a power struggle between the existing institutions.
What all this means for the future of the EU is not yet clear. In Germany during the last month or so, there has been a wave of criticism of the EU and in particular the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, though the target of the criticism seems increasingly to be Berlin rather than Brussels. But even as Merkel’s Christian Democrats have plummeted in the polls and performed disastrously in two regional elections last weekend, this has not benefited the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which was formed in 2013 in response to Merkel’s politics of no alternatives.
Meanwhile, in a general election in the Netherlands 10 days ago, the centre-right prime minister, Mark Rutte, won a fourth consecutive term despite the fact that the country has been even slower than Germany to vaccinate its citizens. The big winner in the election was the liberal pro-European D66 party. But Thierry Baudet’s far-right Forum for Democracy also did well, increasing its seats in the Dutch parliament from two to eight, in part through its opposition to lockdown measures.
In Italy, the pandemic seems, if anything, to have increased rather than decreased support for the EU. Initially, there was a surge of Euroscepticism as Italy was hit hard by Covid-19 and received little support from the EU. But Italians welcomed the suspension of the EU’s fiscal rules, which limit government deficits and debt and have been at the centre of disputes within the eurozone. The creation of a €750bn (£645bn) EU recovery fund – the “NextGenerationEU” – restored the hope of many Italians in the union. Its recent threat to restrict the export of vaccines to countries such as the UK also seems to have gone down well.
However, the far-right Lega remains the most popular party in Italy, even if for the moment it has moderated its Euroscepticism as it backs the new government of the former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi, an interesting fusion of technocracy and populism. Meanwhile, according to some polls, another far-right party, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, is now the second most popular party after the Lega and could become even stronger as it opposes the Draghi government.
The next phase of the pandemic could further boost populism and reopen the conflicts within the EU that have emerged during the last decade since the euro crisis began. Europeans are starting to discuss how and when to return to the EU’s fiscal rules or, in EU jargon, how to “deactivate the escape clause”. The current ECB president, Christine Lagarde, said recently that she hoped the rules would be “revisited and improved”, but the question of how exactly to do that sets fiscally hawkish countries such as Germany and the Netherlands against countries such as Italy that want more flexibility.
The politics of the recovery fund, which was meant to restore cohesion within the EU, could also be toxic. EU member states have to submit national spending plans for approval to the European commission. It was this question of how to spend EU money that led to the collapse of the previous Italian government, a coalition including the populist Five Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic party, in January. Meanwhile, on Friday, the German constitutional court blocked the German president from ratifying the fund after Bernd Lucke, the founder of the AfD, challenged its legality.
When the recovery fund was created last summer, pro-Europeans saw it as a breakthrough in European integration, hence its hubristic name. They saw it as a step towards debt mutualisation in the eurozone, or even, as the German finance minister, Olaf Scholz, put it, a “Hamiltonian moment” that would inexorably lead towards the creation of a fiscal and political union such as the US. But this is what the German constitutional court opposes, as it has made clear in a series of rulings in the last decade.
Economists, on the other hand, are generally sceptical about the fund, which they see as inadequate in macroeconomic terms, particularly when compared with the $1.9tn fiscal stimulus that the US Congress has recently passed. Yet though it may not be big enough to produce a real recovery, the fund is big enough to create conflicts between member states over how to spend it – and to galvanise Eurosceptic parties in both the north and south of Europe. In short, the pandemic is unlikely to end the populist “wave”, as many centrists hoped last year.
Hans Kundnani is a senior research fellow at Chatham House and the author of The Paradox of German Power
Source: The Guardian
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