🔮 The technopopulist loop and conflicts of sovereignty in the EU

The EU economic crisis of 2008 generated a clash between the EU and national authorities. This clash, however, was only one part of the story. Events in several European countries, writes Emilija Tudzarovska, prompted a crisis of party politics, which, in turn, triggered appeals to populism and technocracy – technopopulism. This has had the effect of weakening further the 'institutionalisation' of political competition

Economic crisis

The economic crisis that struck the world in 2008 exposed some fundamental issues in the European integration project. It also revealed deeper problems plaguing representative democracies and party politics. The crisis brought to a head some of the implications of the EU's historical choices, especially those which were made to accommodate its neoliberal approach. This effected a profound change in EU member states' political and economic systems.

One consequence has been the emergence of new parties, movements and political leaders. These new parties and leaders are using appeals to populism and technocracy, sometimes intertwining both, as strategies to gain, hold and exercise power on behalf of 'the people'. Their logic is triggered by clashes of sovereignty at the nation-state level. The clashes between different authorities reflect the legal, institutional and economic changes in EU member states. Both are also symptoms of a crisis in the EU over democratic representation.

The 2008 economic crisis laid bare the causes and consequences of historical choices made to accommodate the EU integration project's neoliberal ideology

Clashes of sovereignty

Scholars have discussed EU democratic legitimacy from several different viewpoints. Some have examined the transfer of key policy competencies in economic governance to the supranational level since the Maastricht Treaty. They have also analysed how well-equipped national parliaments are to act on this share of authority, and to exercise surveillance and accountability, especially in economic policy.

The purpose of such actions is to provide legitimacy to democratic decisions, which should represent citizens' interests. Nevertheless, the role of national parliaments has been changing. Scholars point out that the EU integration project has also contributed to these transformations. On the one hand, parliaments have a great deal to do and usually in a very short time. On the other hand, party politics has undergone a profound transformation, particularly since the 1970s. This has led to what Peter Mair termed 'a void' – a disconnect between political parties, citizens and their societies.

As a result, there is a rupture in political systems, and political parties are struggling to institutionalise popular sovereignty, which is best contextualised in a conflicts of sovereignty framework analysis. The framework identifies three main types of sovereignty conflicts: foundational, institutional, and territorial. We are currently witnessing an institutional conflict over where final authority lies. This conflict sometimes occurs between claims to popular sovereignty and parliamentary sovereignty; in other cases, between constitutional and popular sovereignty.

What they have in common is that they all came to the fore during the EU debt crisis in Southern and Eastern Europe. Events in Greece, Slovenia, Italy and Bulgaria, for example, show the degree to which institutional conflict has weakened the 'institutionalisation' of political competition, and created a fertile ground for technopopulist logic as a new way of doing politics.

Paving the way for technocratic populism

The EU economic crisis was not only about clashes of sovereignty between the Troika and EU debt countries. It was also about how popular sovereignty is exercised within the EU, and how parliaments are sometimes (mis)used for these purposes – and it was underlaid by a crisis in party politics. All are triggering different institutional conflicts of sovereignty.

The EU economic crisis was also about how popular sovereignty is exercised in the EU, how parliaments are sometimes (mis)used for these purposes, and the crisis of party politics

Some European countries responded to citizens' calls for more democracy by holding referenda. Many people think referenda enhance direct democracy because citizens can voice their opinions directly on a specific matter. Greece, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Italy all used this strategy to alleviate critiques.

In Greece and Slovenia, states ignored demands for popular referenda. Instead, they introduced measures supported by supranational technocratic executives. Bulgaria and Italy organised two referenda to reform the institution of parliament. Both failed, but have substantially weakened parliaments in the face of national executives.

In all four countries, the clash between popular and parliamentary sovereignty has paved the way for technopopulism, and for the rise of political parties, movements and leaders, which combine appeals to populism and appeals to technocracy, to win elections. Both appeals, combined or not, constitute alternatives to representative democracy,

The management of the Euro crisis revealed that politicians passed policies through weak parliaments and at the same time invoked popular sovereignty to weaken parliaments even further. Ultimately, popular and parliamentary sovereignty remained trapped in a technopopulist loop. This not only reflects new conflicts of sovereignty but exacerbates them, leading to an ongoing crisis.

The technopopulist loop

Technopopulism is feeding ‘the void’ left behind by weakened political parties which once were guarantors of the social contract between citizens and the state. The rise of this logic within restructured party systems across Europe is challenging pluralistic forms of representative democracy.

Technopopulism is feeding ‘the void’ left behind by weakened political parties which once were guarantors of the social contract between citizens and the state

We can also understand technocratic populism as valence populism: a distinctive type of populism which often emphasises technocracy. Valence populism ‘appeals to technical expertise to connect directly with the people’ – this was particularly evident during the 2008 economic crisis. That crisis, and the period that followed, also exposed the fact that when national parliaments legitimised executives’ lack of popular legitimacy, they perpetuated the technopopulist logic of governance 'for the people' rather than 'by the people'.

The paradox is that the referenda were triggered by a profound crisis in party systems, but their results ceded, or attempted to cede, even more power to executive technocrats, leading to ‘policy without politics’. We are in a technopopulist loop.

No.52 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Emilija Tudzarovska
Emilija Tudzarovska
University Lecturer in Contemporary European Politics, Charles University, Prague / Research Fellow, Institute of Sociology, Czech Academy of Sciences

Emilija is a researcher at SYRI, the National Institute for Research on the Socio-Economic Impact of Diseases and Systemic Risks, part of PA5, working on populism and polarisation.

She holds a PhD in Public and Social policy obtained as a Marie Currie Fellow under the Horizon 2020 program, PLATO (2017–2022).

Her published research has focused on EU democratic legitimacy, party politics, technopopulism, and conflicts of sovereignty in the EU.

She has previously worked for the British Embassy in Skopje and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Germany.

Her current research explores the risks to representative democracies and the historical interlinks between politics and economics in the EU’s West and Central East.

Emilija regularly writes op-eds for Social Europe, European and Western Balkans media.

She tweets @EmiTudzarovska

Sovereignty in Conflict Political, Constitutional and Economic Dilemmas in the EU

The Technocratic Populist Loop: Clashes Between Parliamentary and Popular Sovereignty in EU’s Eastern and Southern Periphery
with Julia Rone, in Sovereignty in Conflict: Political, Constitutional and Economic Dilemmas in the EU
Palgrave Macmillan, 2023

The Politics of Legitimation in the European Union Legitimacy Recovered?

Legitimation strategies and national parliaments: The case of anti-corruption
in The Politics of Legitimation in the European Union: Legitimacy Recovered?
Routledge, 2022

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