by Valerio Alfonso Bruno
13 June 2018
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).
was trained at the Israel-Italy Chamber of Commerce and
Industry in Tel Aviv, the European Commission in
Brussels and the ITU
the United Nations in Geneva.
Bruno also worked in the sector
EU Affairs in Brussels for a short period.
Techno-populism, a curious blend of Populism and
Technocracy, is rising in Europe and is being openly
However, the same phenomenon is seen in the U.S.
with Trump (populism) partnering with Technocrats.
Because the Technocrats wind up being the only
people able to run complex systems, they end up with
the upper hand.
In Europe, home to one of the most ambitious political and
institutional experiments in recent history,
the European Union, populist
movements and technocratic elites have been among the most active
actors in taking advantage of the use of fear, beginning immediately
after the global financial and economic crisis of 2008.
The nature of populisms and technocracies differs in many aspects.
Populist movements build
their success substantially upon what we may define as "input
legitimacy", or popular legitimacy, while technocratic elites are
supported by "output legitimacy", in other words legitimacy derived
from the implementation of efficient policies.
This dualism is
particularly visible in the EU and its peculiar typology of
multi-level governance, with Institutions such as the European
Commission acting at the supra-national level, often in contrast
with EU Member States' politics at the domestic level.
The difference between populist movements and technocratic
elites is reflected in the strategies adopted by the two:
...are utterly far apart.
However, on closer
analysis, populist movements and technocratic elites in Europe share
one key element:
mastering the art of
influencing the political debate by producing and evoking
fear and anxiety through an effective use of
- The Force of Simple and Vivid Language
In Hungary, the
growing political hostility over the role of international
NGOs, with their alleged aim of secretly influencing the
national agenda or even worse, culminated in the crackdown
George Soros's Open
In Poland, school
textbooks are changed following nationalistic and
anti-intellectualistic arguments, portraying minorities as a
danger for the country
continuously depicted as being a German colony
The arguments of European
populists are indeed simple and of a generalizing nature, evoking
with concrete, vivid images fears such as of invasion,
unfairness and conspiracy, to mobilize masses of citizens.
These anxious feelings
are easily stoked by fallacious narratives such as,
Fears - The Mis(Use) of Complexity
Fears produced by technocratic elites in Europe are based on complex
and specific arguments, posed in technical and bureaucratic
language, with masterly timing:
moments of political instability or paralysis that result in
uncertainty to justify the necessity of implementing the
political agenda they support.
reaction of financial markets
the "spread" (the
differential between interest rates on local public debts
the action of the
Troika (EU Commission, IMF and European Central Bank),
increasingly common, in what takes on the traits of a
More and more frequently,
we record statements from high-level EU bureaucrats or politicians
"the risk of default
will eventually lead to…", etc.
In particular, before and
after referendums or elections, continual references are made to
possible sovereign debt defaults or the risk deriving from,
Maastricht criteria (in Italy, from 2011 until recently)
price to be paid for leaving the EU (in the United Kingdom,
in the wake of the Brexit in 2016),
...resulting in limiting
de facto the space for political debate.
Reinforcement - The Example of Italy
The result of the strategy of building up fear, implemented by
populist movements and technocratic elites in
Italy and in Europe alike, is a dialectical relationship
between the two that paradoxically brings mutual reinforcement.
For instance, the
irrational nature of populist economic policies triggers crisis and
turmoil, favoring indirectly the recourse to top-down approaches by
national and supra-national elites, based upon their recognized
competences and expertise.
However, their action is
often unsupported by transparent democratic legitimacy,
especially when the tasks at hand consist of implementing severe
cuts in spending upon social policies.
This, in turn, fosters a
reinforcement of populist movements, with the process following that
pattern, as can be seen by the recent history of Italy:
the action of a
technical government (PM Monti), born from the inadequacy of the
policies implemented by the previous executive (PM Berlusconi),
lead after some years of centre-left governments, to one of the
most populist governments of the EU (the Five Stars and Lega
"yellow-green" coalition government).
Problems, but Wrong Answers?
In conclusion, it is important to highlight again that both
populist movements and technocratic governance did not
come out of nowhere in Europe.
The former represent the
inevitable result of a real and pervasive socio-political malaise,
and are there to signal something has been going wrong in the EU.
The latter adhere to
arguments which may be fully legitimate per se, exhibiting profound
competence and sound technical expertise in facing complex problems
across national borders, although their protagonists insist on (mis)using
those arguments with the certain knowledge they are provoking
The current situation in Europe suggests populist movements and
technocracies may simply represent, albeit in an extremely polarized
fashion, two sides of the same coin.
Their strength, based on
generating fear, sooner or later reveals its limits, while the real
problem, the nexus between
economic inequality and
dissatisfaction with the Establishment, remains untouched,
undermining our increasingly fragile 'democratic' institutions...