Populists and Technocrats in Europe’s Fragmented Democracies

Populists and Technocrats in Europe’s Fragmented Democracies
Supporters of the left-wing Syriza party react after the election results at the party’s main electoral center, Athens, Sept. 20, 2015 (AP photo by Lefteris Pitarakis).

By now, the European Union has been struggling for over half a decade to sustainably resolve the euro crisis. And as the latest round of brinkmanship over the next bailout tranche for Greece shows, the crisis is far from resolved. It’s still too early to tell what kind of EU will eventually emerge from the crisis, but it is not too early to take stock of the political changes the past five years have already brought about.

Conventional wisdom has it that both left- and right-wing populism have been on the rise across the continent. Yet this lazy equation of left and right fails to capture a more complex picture: Only some of the new left-wing forces in Europe have really been populist. Their major achievement has been to establish an alternative to social-democratic parties that to some degree have been discredited by their association with the so-called Third Way of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder, which sought to reconcile the European left with market-friendly reforms and globalization. Meanwhile, right-wing populism does indeed threaten national democracies, both opposing and in a curious way benefiting from technocratic EU policies advancing austerity.

It is clear that, on the whole, a politically more-fragmented Europe has been the result. We are likely to see more indecisive elections, such as in Spain in December 2015, and, to some extent, Ireland in February 2016, and also ever-grander coalitions of parties uniting against right-wing populists, as witnessed in the aftermath of elections in several German federal states in March, as well as in the Austrian presidential elections in May. Whether this development amounts to a “crisis of representation,” as is often claimed, will depend on the answers to two questions: Can right-wing populist parties, which for now advance their agendas by claiming that they alone represent the “real people,” become “normal” parties representing the concerns of constituents with no exclusive claim to legitimacy? And can supranational politics in the EU be reshaped in such a way that it connects more meaningfully with developments within national party systems?

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