An illiberal tide is sweeping across Europe
Posted on December 29, 2015
We have all become complacent that liberal democracy in Europe was firmly embedded and irreversible. Yet an illiberal tide is sweeping across the continent that mainstream parties seem unable to counter.
The World War II defeat of fascism ushered Europe into an era where liberal democracy became the undisputed political ideology. West Germany became an exemplary democracy. By the end of the 1970s, the dictatorships of Spain, Portugal and Greece had disappeared and these countries soon transformed themselves into liberal, democratic states. 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin Wall rapidly followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eventual expansion of liberal democratic ideals into former Soviet states. In Europe, the success of liberal democratic ideals seemed total and irreversible.
As is often the case, success breeds a complacency that soon turns to hubris. To many of us the idea that liberal and democratic ideals could be reversed just as quickly as they had taken hold was utterly inconceivable. As a result, we started first to forget and then to undermine some of the core principles that underpin the success of liberal democracy. We forgot that democracy derives its legitimacy from a politically engaged population not from the ruling class. We forgot that a system where the idea of democracy is reduced to no more than giving people the opportunity to vote once every five years or so is no democracy at all.
Many countries became effectively two party duopolies with power being transferred from one to the other at periodic intervals. Parties with political platforms that became ever more similar. This effective duopoly led some to believe that they had a right to have their turn at governing every decade or so. Politics became ever more remote from the voting public. Power became increasingly concentrated – in central government, in increasingly powerful unelected and unaccountable technocratic bodies such as ‘independent’ central banks, and in the hands of others such as big business and other concentrations of wealth.
We also forgot that liberal democratic ideals are about leaving power and responsibility as close as possible to the people rather concentrating it. The admirable ambition of creating a united Europe soon turned into a bureaucratic nightmare. The principle of subsidiarity became no more than words on some written declaration. In the name of both financial efficiency and the perceived imperatives of a globalised world, ever more power flowed first from villages, towns and regions to national governments and from there to the machinery of the European Union – a group of entities that had precious little democratic or emotional connection with the average voter.
Many of us – and also those who dominated power structures – tended to have a broad internationalist outlook that supported globalisation, free trade, free markets, free movement of people and largely open borders. The focus was on the economic benefits that these developments would undoubtedly bring. We believed that economic prosperity through ever more interlocked economies was the best way to prevent conflict and lock in the many successes of liberal democracy. The nation state started to be undermined in favour of grandiose visions of global governance.
However, while economists took over policy making and showed that, by their unidimensional metrics, much progress was being made, nobody seemed to be paying much attention to the cultural impact of these changes. Nobody was ‘measuring’ the damage being done to ordinary people’s sense of identity. The slow erosion of a sense of citizenship – something that had previously combined the privileges of citizenship with a sense of duty and social responsibility. The fact that economic prosperity was being bought at the expense of social cohesion.
There was then the slow change in the meanings associated with ‘internationalism’, ‘globalisation’ and ‘free trade’ – from associations of these terms with increasing prosperity to their association with concentration of power, fear, insecurity and anger. The increasing sense among ordinary people that they were progressively becoming politically disenfranchised. These changes were either unseen, or ignored, or dismissed as secondary to, and less important than, the economic benefits that were accruing across Europe.
Today, across the Continent, a new illiberal politics is tapping into these eroded cultural elements that, it turns out, were the essential foundations on which liberal democracies were built. Fueled by these slow changes and recently accelerated by events such as the refugee crisis and the threats from cross-border terrorism, an illiberal politics keeps spreading. From Europe’s periphery it is now slowly but surely seeping into Europe’s core – France, the founding country of modern liberal thought.
Mainstream parties have reacted to these development in different ways. Some have adopted the head-in-the-sand approach, dismissing this new politics as ‘populist’. Others have allowed themselves to be dragged in the same illiberal direction. In France, the march of the National Front was only stopped by the socialists withdrawing their candidates from the second round of the recent elections. These approaches will not work. Instead, we somehow need to re-discover some of the core foundations of liberal democracy that today’s mainstream politics has ended up betraying. And we need to take more seriously the cultural aspects of politics and understand that, in the long term, the cultural will always win out over the economic.
In 1946, Winston Churchill gave a speech in the small Missouri town of Fulton (population 7,000). He said “”From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” Seventy years after that speech, and a mere 27 years after the iron curtain was torn down, an illiberal tide is now sweeping across Europe. Can we reverse the tide by going back to the core principles on which liberal democracy was founded? Or will we react simply by trying to build a dike to stop it – only to achieve some delay but eventually to see our dike swept away by the consequences of our collective failures?