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OPINION

Technocracy or populism?

For many governments, integration into the EU has mainly been a convenient way to blame Brussels for unpopular measures

Technocracy or populism: that is the question. Not quite as dramatic as Hamlet's dichotomy; but beside it, the difference (real enough) between left and right does tend to pale. For many governments, integration into the EU has mainly been a convenient way to blame Brussels, the troika or, in short, the technocracy, for unpopular measures. And, on the far right and sometimes on the far left, we now see populist movements mushrooming, which harangue their voters with grievances about the EU, though they are essentially xenophobic.

In the process we have been emptying national democracy of content, with policies driven and supervised by Brussels, without replacing it with any real Europe-wide democracy. Spain's current government sent the 2014 budget straight off to Brussels for approval, short-circuiting parliamentary debate in Spain. Countries such as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands have reinforced national controls on EU policy. Why don't we?

The rise of anti-EU populism has much to do with an ill-planned, ill-explained EU integration that dilutes national identities. These populist strains took off about the turn of the century (in the French case much earlier), and with the defeat by referendum of the EU Constitution in France and the Netherlands. They have been strengthened by the crisis and the technocratic response to it.

The fact that populist options are not in sight in Spain does not mean they can be ruled out 

We may say that in Spain there are no such populist strains. The memory of the Civil War and the dictatorship is still raw. True, the northern European radicalizations are essentially ones of reaction against the loss of identity supposedly deriving from European integration, such as mass immigration. The Spanish have more or less digested their immigration, which produces no grave problems of xenophobia or cultural identity. In Spain, both one part of Spanish nationalism, and the opposing Basque and Catalan secessionist strands, carry a strong populist charge that draws off that particular part of the electorate.

In Spain there is also a huge pocket of electoral abstention, charged with strong anti-political feelings, which might easily breed populist options. Some of this grassroots feeling might serve to create a movement like that of Beppe Grillo in Italy, but other movements resemble those of the National Front in France. The ruling PP fears the rise of opposition from the right, when its true strength, as under Aznar, was its attractiveness to everything to the right of center. There might be material for a Spanish version of the Tea Party. But, among other things, conspicuous leadership is lacking.

The fact that, so far, populist options are not in sight in Spain does not mean they can be ruled out in the near future, if the social situation does not improve and the crisis goes on. The growing protest vote might easily transform itself into populism. The fragmentation of the electorate is a breeding ground for such phenomena. So is the growing distrust of the EU; felt by as many as 75 percent of Spanish citizens, according to a recent Eurobarometer survey. Distrust of the national government is even greater, however.

In any case, the populism of others also affects us. An apparently possible victory of the National Front in France in the May European elections would work to the detriment of Spanish interests, for it would contaminate all of French politics and paralyze France, and with it, the new and necessary advances in European integration.

To fight against these political tendencies, we must distance ourselves from technocracy. There must be alternatives, but to be realistic they require coordinated action at the European level. And the EU must respond with concrete and robust policy answers to the problems of citizens by getting back to politics, to democracy, both in the European and national frameworks.