The EU’s economy has essentially been flat over the past year. The slump in manufacturing is deepening. Companies are cutting work hours and issuing profit warnings. The dominant mood in the European and international markets today is anxiety. Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, announced on 14 August that its GDP had contracted by 0.1% in the second quarter of 2019 compared with the previous three months.
This has left many analysts to conclude that Europe is heading for an outright recession.
Whenever there is an economic or political crisis on the horizon, there is one particular pattern…societies often look for a technocratic government to solve their problems. This happened in several European countries in the wake of the 2008 recession and the Eurozone crisis. Caretaker technocrat-led administrations have been historically popular in crisis-prone democracies, particularly in Southern and Eastern Europe.
There are several examples of technocratic cabinets in Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria that were appointed in times of economic difficulties to avert imminent economic disasters. Technocratic cabinets are also often appointed following a major crisis caused by a political scandal or when parties fail either to establish or to keep a partisan cabinet. In Finland, for example, several technocratic cabinets followed the break‐up of a ruling coalition. Since the establishment of the Czech Republic as an independent country in 1993, three of its cabinets were technocratic.
In today’s UK, the mother of parliamentary democracy, there are calls that the post-Brexit shake-up must include apolitical experts who should sort-out the political mess that began in 2016 when Britons voted in favour of leaving the EU. And yet, more than three years on and the Parliament still finds the EU’s terms for the exit to be unacceptable. With the EU showing little willingness to renegotiate, Boris Johnson, the UK’s new prime minister, is pulling his country closer to the cliff of a “no-deal Brexit”, which the Parliament is opposing.
In today’s Europe, traditional political parties are no longer liked or trusted by voters the way they used to be. One reason is that many politicians often cannot deliver after overpromising. Coming to power, they face difficulties in solving major problems and have no political courage to outline either difficult or unpopular choices to their base. Their partisan cabinets often fail to respond to challenges or deal with the consequences.
In the current economic and political climate in Europe, one may expect calls for technocratic cabinets to raise. There will be arguments and the accelerated expectations that apolitical experts can outperform partisan cabinets. Some will even argue that technocrat-led caretaker governments are among the most advanced forms of power-sharing between elected politicians and experts in contemporary European democracies.
I have my share of a technocratic experience. As an international attorney, I left the private sector in 2015 when I was called to join the so-called technocrat-led government of post-revolutionary Ukraine to serve as the First Deputy Minister of Economy. There were several other such technocrats in the Ukrainian government. Some, like me at the time, were expats who had been granted Ukrainian citizenship. The expectation then was, just as it is with any technocratic administration, that the non-partisan experts may set and enact policies that were independent of parties, their political decisions, and elected party representatives.
Those expectations had failed.
More often than not, politicians put unelected and unempowered experts in front to face the public only to hide the politicians’ own incompetence and lack of courage to take political responsibility for not being able to deliver. In the meantime, the politicians continue pulling the strings, not allowing the experts to govern on one hand, and on the other, they let the technocrats assume the responsibility for the politicians’ failures.
From that perspective, technocratic governments erode democracy and keep bad politicians in power. Although such governments have sometimes been long-lasting, they are illegitimate and democratically dysfunctional. They are a symptom of high levels of state exploitation by irresponsible leaders and political parties. Their occurrence in Europe is part of a broader sense of malaise in Western democracy where, instead of being bailed out, politicians need to be held responsible and accountable. Any claims for having a successful record to defend such technocratic governments and their legitimacy disregards their unfavourable legacy and political conditions to which they are contributing.
Ukraine has not yet completely abandoned the idea of a new technocratic government. Less than a month after convincing parliamentary elections victory, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s party on 20 August called on the other parliamentary parties to contribute names of candidates for building a technocratic government. Ukraine may indeed be a very special and, in some ways, extreme case. As its new president, Zelensky started his entry into the Ukrainian politics earlier this year by impressively winning the presidential election in April. On 21 July, the former entertainer struck again. His party received 247 seats in 450 seats Ukrainian parliament. Two-thirds of the new MPs are new to politics. Like Zelensky, a number of them are leading stars from show business.
However, what is not unique to Ukrainian politics is that just as Brexiteers were during their campaigns, Zelensky had been avoiding debates with other candidates or being quizzed by journalists on hard policy questions. Today, many modern politicians often dodge complex issues and assume different guises at different times. Being vague about their intentions has become quintessential to their success. Because such politicians are all but clear in their plans, and sometimes even of their true convictions, people use them as a repository for their own. When they cannot deliver, they are looking for technocratic experts to clean their mess.
Ironically, that same day when Zelensky’s party started the conversation about a technocrat government, Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, a respected lawyer and an independent in a coalition government of right and left-wing populist parties, announced in frustration his resignation and put an end to his government. Conte found out that being associated with anti-establishment populists and managing the country without a mandate is anything but possible.