Europe: rise of the calculating machine

Apparently, the answer to the eurozone crisis is to replace elected premiers with economic experts

Image of Robert Shrimsley

Stand by for the rise of the technocrats. Apparently, the answer to the huge problems of the eurozone is the replacement of elected premiers with economic experts – approved officials dropped from European institutions. In Greece, Lucas Papademos, a former vice-president of the European Central Bank, has been pushed hard for the job; in Italy, Mario Monti, another economist and a former EU Commissioner, is much mentioned. They may lack a democratic mandate but they’re fantastically well regarded in Frankfurt. It remains to be seen if either will clinch the role. But what exactly is the great attraction of technocrats?

If ever modern Europe needed brave, charismatic leaders to carry their nation through turbulent times, it would seem to be now. Instead, it is as if the crew of the Starship Enterprise had concluded that Captain Jean-Luc Picard is no longer the man for the job and that it is time to send for the Borg. Efficient, calculating machines driving through unpopular measures across the eurozone with the battle cry “resistance is futile” are apparently the order of the day. Faced with a deep crisis, once-proud European nations are essentially preparing to hand over power to Ernst & Young.

The premise that grave times call for experts rather than politicians is not entirely borne out by history. Some of the worst regimes of modern times were preceded by governments with what might be termed a technocratic approach. Great historic technocrats have included Robert McNamara, the US defence secretary and prime advocate of escalation in Vietnam. Italy too has form in seeking out such men, especially in the nineties. Their achievements included guiding the country into the euro. The euro itself was a technocratic creation, one where the member states did not get round to reading the manual.

The definition of technocracy is rule by experts – in particular the scientists and engineers. In this case it means the financial engineers and political scientists; brilliant but bloodless functionaries making decisions based on empirical evidence without worrying about carrying the citizenry with them.

Doubtless the current crop are talented men but there is a reason why successful political leaders do not tend to begin their speeches with words like “liquidity facility”. The one area of expertise technocrats lack is political, since they tend to have avoided traditional paths to power. But not to worry; Olli Rehn speaks highly of them. The premise is that only such men will take the necessary decisions that cowardly political parties are unable or unwilling to make. Great, brave politicians may be preferred but alas, – it may be noted – they do not seem to be in plentiful supply. The return of the technocrats represents the failure of the political class.

Good politicians are able to empathise with their voters. We may affect to despise politicians for being too easily blown by the winds of public opinion, but there is sense and stability in selecting those with a feel for what the voters will accept.

In many countries the most successful politicians are those with whom the people can imagine sharing a beer. This may not be the optimal criterion for choosing a leader. Charisma may be overrated – but there must be a reason why the phrase, “Hey, I’m going for a beer with a bunch of technocrats, wanna come?” has fallen some way short of cliché status. But the best politicians are experts too; their expertise is in knowing what is politically possible.

Italy and Greece may well be running out of alternatives; a weak and bankrupt political class may have few options. But history suggests that technocracy is some way from a panacea.

Red poppycock

Armistice Day brings a rash of articles from those ostentatiously explaining why they refuse to wear a red poppy to commemorate the dead. Perhaps the time has come for a new logo with a modern message: actually, I couldn’t give a damn why you’re not wearing a poppy.

Italian exhibition

The cartoonist Matt linked the Italian debt crisis to the Leonardo exhibition arriving in London. What would modern day Leonardo paintings be called, one wonders. Madonna and debtors, perhaps? Silvio and the nymphs? Or The deflowering of Italia, a buxom maiden, swathed in a tricolore with three A’s fallen at her feet? All other ideas welcome.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.

More on this topic

Suggestions below based on Eurozone economy

Draghi’s cultural initiation test

The former Italian central bank governor has a reputation as a low-profile operator. But too many weekend trips to Rome would not go down well in Frankfurt, writes Ralph Atkins

A bolder approach to city regions

Two things are needed for genuine devolution: local acceptance of a structure that will work and willingness by the centre to concede authority, writes Brian Groom