One of the most shocking political developments of recent years was the lack of any public outcry at the imposition of unelected regimes in Greece and Italy. In fact, the installation of technocratic governments in both countries in the midst of the Eurozone economic crisis in 2011 was widely welcomed. The European Union played a central role in insisting on what could reasonably be called a ‘soft coup’.
If something similar had been attempted a generation or two earlier, it would almost certainly have been met with widespread protest. Europeans might have seen such a blatant attack on democracy as normal in other parts of the world, but not at home, in the birthplace of democracy.
Such changing attitudes point to the rise of technocratic rule. Democracy, even in the limited sense of an expression of the popular will through parliament, has gone out of fashion. Indeed, there is no real politics today, in the sense of popular contestation over different visions of how society should be run. Instead, the trend is towards apolitical administration by an elite of expert technocrats. The general public, the demos in democracy, has been sidelined.
This is the backdrop to James Heartfield’s groundbreaking new book, The European Union and the End of Politics. Both parts of the title are important. Heartfield, a London-based writer and fellow contributor to spiked, explains the rise of the EU against the backdrop of the depoliticisation of nation states. He provides an innovative account of the rise of technocratic rule in its most advanced and grotesque incarnation.
For Heartfield, the drive to European integration in its current form begins in the 1980s. He avoids the common error of reading the recent experience back into earlier pan-European entities such as the European Coal and Steel Community or the European Economic Community. Indeed, technically the EU itself did not even come into existence until 1993.
The EU did not come about as a result of any democratic drive to transcend nation states and replace them with a pan-European superstate. Popular agency did not drive the change. Instead, as Heartfield points out, the EU emerged as a result of the decline of popular democracy within nation states.
Old forms of politics, such as the party system and trade unions, have lost legitimacy. The old right and the old left are both defunct. Free-market reforms have failed to achieve their goal of rolling back the state and national Keynesian solutions have not resolved underlying economic problems.
In such circumstances, the drive towards EU integration has materialised almost by default. National elites have become more dependent on their relationships with their European counterparts as a source of legitimacy. Domestic politics and political parties matter much less than in the past.
These elites no longer speak the language of old-fashioned nationalism. In fact, they often deride nationalism as a pathological condition, the province of populist and fascist movements. Instead, they view themselves as enlightened cosmopolitans who are a cut above the petty parochialism of the general public.
Despite the internationalist rhetoric, this is essentially a form of elitism. For the elites, expressing an affinity with European culture has become a way of expressing disdain for their own publics. From this starting point, it is not surprising that they promote technocracy and show such contempt for democracy.