Angela Merkel likes to say that there is no alternative to her policies; and when she turns around she tends not to admit it. It was therefore highly unusual that last week, amid growing anger over her government’s response to the pandemic, the Chancellor apologized to the German people. The government had planned to place the country in a tight lockdown for five days over Easter in an effort to curb the surge in infections, but dropped the idea after it was widely criticized.
At the start of the pandemic, Germany seemed to stand out as one of the few Western democracies to have managed 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. On the other hand, they saw in other countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, where the “populist” leaders were in power, mismanagement of the crisis.
Now, however, the roles have been turned. Of course, the pandemic is far from over and things could change again – for example, if, as expected, vaccine rollout slows down in the UK while it accelerates sharply in the EU. But for now, as Germany struggles with a third wave with just 14% of its citizens vaccinated, it is the UK that is seen as the success story. Earlier this month, the publisher of the German tabloid image even published a homepage that said to the British: “We envy you! “
The current moment is the last episode of a permanent struggle between technocracy and populism in Europe. Over the past decade, Europe has been engulfed in what has often been wrongly called a populist ‘wave’. But the rise of populism can itself be understood as a response to the expansion of depoliticized decision-making, especially within the EU, the ultimate model of technocratic governance. So, 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 you might call a technocratic moment. Suddenly it seemed that life and death depended on skill and expertise – and many “pro-Europeans” hoped that this had discredited populism once and for all. For example, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote last April that the pandemic “highlights expertise and knowledge – principles that populists mock or reject because they combine all of these qualities to the elite ”. It was therefore an opportunity to overtake technocracy.
During the first phase of the pandemic, the EU seemed strengthened. But now things are different. The economic and institutional problems surrounding the euro had already damaged the EU’s reputation for competence over the past decade. Today, the vaccine fiasco has undermined the perception that it is effective in an even more dramatic way. Economist Paul Krugman wrote that the EU had displayed “the same bureaucratic and intellectual rigidity that made the euro crisis ten years ago much worse than it should have been”.
This is particularly damaging for the EU because of its long reliance on what political scientists call ‘production legitimacy’ (i.e. the legitimacy that comes from producing results) as a substitute for ‘ legitimacy of inputs ”(ie 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 intended to include citizens and find ways to democratize the EU, escalated into a power struggle between existing institutions.
What all this means for the future of the EU is not yet clear. In Germany, over the past month or so, there has been a wave of criticism of the EU and in particular of the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, although the target of criticism appears to be more and more to be Berlin rather than Brussels. But even as Merkel’s Christian Democrats fell in the polls and had disastrous results in two regional elections last weekend, it did not benefit far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which was formed in 2013 in response to Merkel’s policy of no alternatives.
Meanwhile, in a general election in the Netherlands 10 days ago, center-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte won a fourth consecutive term despite the country having been even slower than the Germany to vaccinate its citizens. The big winner of the election was the pro-European liberal party D66. But Thierry Baudet’s far-right Forum for Democracy has also done well, increasing its seats in the Dutch parliament from two to eight, in part thanks to its opposition to the lockdown measures.
In Italy, the pandemic appears to have increased rather than decreased support for the EU. Initially, there was a rise in Euroscepticism as Italy was hit hard by Covid-19 and received little support from the EU. But Italians hailed the suspension of EU fiscal rules, which limit government deficits and debt and have been at the center of disputes within the eurozone. The creation of a 750 billion euro (£ 645 billion) European stimulus fund – the “NextGenerationEU” – has given hope to many Italians in the Union. Its recent threat to restrict the export of vaccines to countries like the UK also appears to have gone well.
However, the far-right Lega remains the most popular party in Italy, although for the moment it has moderated its Euroscepticism by supporting the new government of former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, an interesting fusion of technocracy. and populism. Meanwhile, according to some polls, another far-right party, the Brothers of Italy of Giorgia Meloni, is now the second most popular party after the Lega and could become even stronger by opposing the Draghi government.
The next phase of the pandemic could further stimulate populism and reopen conflicts within the EU that have emerged in the last decade since the start of the euro crisis. Europeans are starting to discuss how and when to revert to EU fiscal rules or, in EU jargon, how to ‘deactivate the safeguard clause’. The current President of the ECB, Christine Lagarde, he told me Recently, she hoped the rules would be “revised and improved”, but the question of how exactly to do that puts fiscally hawkish countries like Germany and the Netherlands against countries like Italy who want more flexibility.
The stimulus fund policy, which is supposed to restore cohesion within the EU, could also be toxic. EU member states must submit their 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 comprising the populist Five Star movement and the center-left Democratic Party, in January. Meanwhile, the German Constitutional Court on Friday barred the German president from ratifying the fund after Bernd Lucke, the founder of the AfD, challenged its legality.
When the stimulus fund was created last summer, pro-Europeans saw it as a breakthrough in European integration, hence its hubristic name. They saw in it a step towards the mutualisation of the debt in the euro zone, even, as the German Minister of Finance, Olaf Scholz said, a “Hamiltonian moment” which would lead inexorably towards the creation of a fiscal and political union like the United States. . But this is what the German Constitutional Court is opposed to, as it has made clear in a series of judgments over the past decade.
Economists, on the other hand, are generally skeptical of the fund, which they see as inadequate in macroeconomic terms, especially given the $ 1.9 billion fiscal stimulus that the U.S. Congress recently passed. Yet while it may not be large enough to produce a real recovery, the fund is large enough to create conflicts between member states over how to spend it – and to galvanize Eurosceptic parties in the north and southern Europe. In short, the pandemic is unlikely to end the populist “wave”, as many centrists hoped last year.