Is the European Union’s supposed “democratic deficit” now spreading to individual European countries in the wake of the sovereign-debt crisis? The rise of unelected technocrats to political power in Greece and Italy suggests, at least superficially, that the old taboo against technocratic governments pursuing an EU-dictated agenda has been shattered.
Consider Italy. Most Italians breathed a collective sigh of relief that three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is being replaced by a technocrat par excellence, former European Commissioner Mario Monti, a respected economist. Greece, too, is turning over the reigns of government to an unelected, and supposedly apolitical, technocrat, Lucas Papademos, a former vice president of the European Central Bank.
Of course, there are many things wrong with the EU nowadays, but a widening of its so-called “democratic deficit” is not one of them. Indeed, that perceived deficit is something of a politically convenient canard. Scholars such as Princeton University’s Andrew Moravcsik have long argued that the EU’s legitimacy comes not from the ballot box, but from its ability to provide concrete benefits to citizens. What the EU achieves through integrating markets – or even eliminating passport controls – underscores the benefits of its “delegated democracy.”
Indeed, it is precisely the Eurocrats’ detachment from everyday politics that has enabled the EU to deliver. Contrary to the ranting of Euroskeptic politicians in Britain and, increasingly, in eurozone member countries, the growing disenchantment of voters with politics reflects the distance that has grown between promises and results, not the distance between EU officials and member states’ citizens.
According to an alarming poll published recently by the leading Italian newspaper La Repubblica, more than 22% of Italians find no great differences between an authoritarian and a democratic system of government. Another 10% believe that an authoritarian regime is better and more effective than a democratic political system.
This disturbing decline of faith in democracy, which is not confined to Italy, brings us back to the powerful rationale underlying Europeans’ growing reliance on technocratic governance: security. From the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union, what brought Europeans closer together was not the dream of a Europe-wide, democratic polity, but, above all, their desire to be safe and secure.
Throughout the post-war years, the narrative of European integration almost always focused on the quest for political, social, and economic security. With violent demonstrations in the streets of Athens, Madrid, and Rome, it is not hard to understand why some people may once again choose to give priority to their security, particularly their economic security.
Europe’s technocrats worked in the service of security ahead of the EU’s enlargement in 2004 to the former communist states of Central Europe. The EU’s bureaucracy played a key part in helping those countries to navigate the complex transition from socialist autocracy to capitalist democracy. At the time, few people acknowledged this, because Eurocrats rarely make headlines. But their success in applying technical standards to countries seeking EU membership earned them huge legitimacy.
The unwritten rule in Europe seems to be that, the more depoliticized the process, the more legitimacy technocrats can earn. Conversely, whenever politics gets in the way of a decision, bureaucrats lose credibility.
One objection to delegating political authority to technocrats is that such appointments amount to a humiliating constraint on sovereignty. In normal times, that is unacceptable to most citizens. But in times of crisis, the voice of the neutral technocrat gains greater legitimacy.
Monti, for example, was among the first to sound the alarm about Italy’s dire finances. But, attesting to the technocrat’s neutrality, back in August he also warned about the implications of demands by non-elected international institutions (in this case, the European Central Bank) for particular policies in exchange for support of Italian bonds in international markets. Monti called this podestà forestiero, something of a foreign overlordship based in Brussels, Washington, and Frankfurt, as well as Berlin and Paris.
The EU is a voluntary pooling of national sovereignty, but the demands now being made of Italy (and Greece) are the diktat of other sovereign nations. A national-unity government run by a technocrat in place of an administration run by elected politicians does not qualitatively change the fact that outsiders are demanding reforms. But voters in a time of crisis may be wiser than most politicians: for the past two decades, Italy’s most popular statesman has consistently been Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, a former central banker called in to run an emergency interim government in the mid-1990’s.
Of course, a technocratic government is an anomaly to the extent that it constitutes a damning verdict on the performance of a country’s entire political class. But voters in the battered lands of the eurozone seem to have reached their own damning conclusions about their elected leaders months ago.
Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, wrote that “a leader is best when people barely know he exists.” With Europe’s crisis-stricken governments increasingly turning to unelected technocrats, one can almost see citizens nodding in agreement.
Fabrizio Tassinari, Head of Foreign Policy and EU Studies at the Danish Institute for International Studies and the author of Why Europe Fears its Neighbors.