The first decades of the 21st century have seen, at the global level, two alarming socio-political trends within democratic countries: the increasing level of economic inequality and citizens’ strong dissatisfaction with political establishments. These trends are contributing to the development of a context of social instability. Most worrying is the existence of certain political movements and elites seemingly interested in fostering tension and manufacturing divisions and fear for political gain.
Europe is home to one of the most ambitious political and institutional experiments in history: the European Union. In the EU, populist movements and technocratic elites have taken advantage of fear and uncertainty, and have escalated their efforts following the global financial crisis of 2008. Populist movements and technocratic factions clearly differ in many important ways: populist movements build their success exclusively upon “input legitimacy”—popular legitimacy via democratic elections—while technocratic elites are supported by “output legitimacy”—legitimacy derived exclusively from the implementation of effective policies. The EU’s peculiar typology of multi-level governance, with institutions such as the European Commission acting at the supra-national level, often contravenes EU Member States’ political efficacy at the domestic level. This can be seen in the current dispute between some Eastern Europe countries, in particular Hungary, and EU institutions over migration and relocation policies.
The distinct strategies adopted by populist movements and technocratic elites reveal the true differences between the two; the nature of their arguments, their language, and their timing strategies are completely different. Under closer analysis, however, the most effective populist movements and technocratic elites in Europe share one key trait: they have mastered the art of influencing the political debate by evoking fears through an effective use of communication and employment of its psychology. We can now look at some recent examples of the strategic production of fear involving EU democracies.
On the Populist Fears: plain language evokes big fears
When uncertainty arose in late 2009 regarding the sustainability of public debt in Greece and the EU suggested austerity measures, populist movements begin to flourish in the country. These populist movements thrived following Germany’s intransigent stance over Greek economic requests, which exacerbated the perception of Berlin’s coercive power role in the EU. Moreover, the so-called Troika’s management (composed by the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank) did not ease social tensions, and embodied the idea of a top-down supranational approach to domestic politics.
Similarly, there is growing political hostility in Hungary concerning the presence of international NGOs and their alleged objective to influence the national agenda, culminating in expulsions of many civil society organizations. Similarly, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom have adopted xenophobic postures against refugee and asylum-seeking immigrants. The arguments used by European populists are simple and they evoke concrete, vivid images of threats such as invasion, unfairness, or conspiracy. The arguments appeal to irrational feelings, by portraying fallacious narratives such as the “conspiracy of the financial markets,” the “immigrant invasions,” or the “Muslim threat.”
On the Technocratic Fears: Complexity as alibi?
Technocratic elites in Europe master the use of specific, complex arguments in order to manufacture fear. They rely on technical and bureaucratic language and masterful timing, gaining influence in the context of specific situations of political instability or stall. These tactics help garner support for their political agenda. Prior to political elections, politicians’ references to the reaction of the Financial Markets, or the action of the “Troika” have become increasingly common. Referendums, for instance, are the target of ad-hoc communication campaigns. This has the traits of a self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly in relation to rating agencies’ actions. Rating agencies are indeed so powerful that their forecasts often materialize due to the perception of danger and the chaos they are able to produce among the public. Indeed, it is possible to remember the strategies used before Greek bailout referendums in 2015 or the United Kingdom’s 2016 “Brexit”, which were aimed at influencing the popular vote. It is important to highlight, however, that technocratic fears are not based on the argument per se, which may be legitimate, but rather are grounded in the specific use of that argument, sometimes appearing as an alibi to control the public agenda, both at the national and international level.
Two Sides of the Same Coin: The Italian Case
The generation of fear results in a paradoxical mutual reinforcement. Indeed, the irrationality of populisms’ economic policies triggers situations of crisis. The resultant crisis indirectly lends favor to top-down approaches by national and supra-national elites, considering their recognized competences and expertise. Citizens often perceive these actions by the elite as unsupported by clear democratic legitimation (especially when the tasks involve implementing strict and costly cuts upon social policies and welfare). This, in turn, fosters a reinforcement of populist movements. This process repeats, as can be seen in the recent history of Italy, where the action of a “technical government” under Prime Minister Mario Monti, born from the inadequacy of the policies implemented by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government, subsequently led to an easy electoral victory for the most populist Italian parties: Five Stars and Lega.
The current context in Europe suggests that populism and technocracy represent two sides of the same coin; complementary aspects of a deep economic and socio-political crisis. While populists’ and technocrats’ strategy of promoting fear eventually reveals its limits, the real problem—the connection between economic inequality and frustration toward political establishments—continues to dramatically undermine the fragile legitimacy of our democratic institutions.
Valerio A. Bruno holds a Ph.D. in “Institutions and Policies” from the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan (2017) and was doctoral researcher at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland (2015). He was trained at the Israel-Italy Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Tel Aviv, the European Commission in Brussels and the ITU of the United Nations in Geneva. Dr. Bruno also worked in the sector of EU Affairs in Brussels.