After the election of Emmanuel Macron the question still remains: How will the liberal development of the EU continue in the face of the threat of right wing populism?
The media is volatile by nature, quickly shifting and twisting. After the first round of the French presidential elections, many commentators are declaring victory: The attacks of the worst populists (Le Pen, Mélenchon) have been blocked, and the liberal development of Europe (and the EU) can continue unimpeded.
This is a grave error. The populists’ wave is based on objective reasons — the complexities of globalization, the erosion of national and other identities, growing uncertainties, and weaker traditional narratives. This will continue. Also, populists always have the advantage of suggesting simple things like re-establishing borders, and reframing complex challenges as little irritants that can be easily managed by ranting against trans-border trade, migration, the EU, ‘the elites’, and mainstream media. Decision makers and academics cannot use these paths.
In other words: Even after Macron’s victory in the second round, the core problems won’t be fixed. Global liberals and moderates will gain some breathing space, that’s all. How can this maybe brief period be put to good use? In particular, how can a vastly ossified bureaucracy in Brussels be mobilized and activated in a way that EU citizens will find convincing?
– Klaus Segbers
Turkey seems to be on a rampage.
An aggressive rhetoric, diplomatic brinkmanship, and threats not only against Europe have made it ever more clear that this country under this leadership cannot become an EU member, and it is putting itself in an outsider role in Nato as well.
There is a problematic referendum calling for constitutional changes. While in normal times, this would not necessarily lead to an international crisis, Turkey presently plays an important role in the regional context, especially in the Syrian crisis, and in moderating flows of refugees.
So what can and should be done? Should Turkey’s neighbors and partners just leave it alone? Or rather, should they attempt to counter its policies?
– Klaus Segbers
Recent visits by high-level guests (the Vice President, and the ministers for defense and the exterior) from D.C. to Europe were scrutinized as rarely a visit from the most important partner country has been before. Comments during and after the election campaign about NATO being ‘obsolete’, and the EU being ‘bound for a breakup’, in sync with welcoming anti-EU insurgents created an atmosphere of puzzlement.
As for defense matters, EU member state leaders suddenly rushed to assure their willingness to increase defense budgets to (a long ago agreed) 2% of their respective GDP, maybe until 2024. But they also started to get involved in number games – don’t we also have to consider development aid, expenses for refugees, or costs for stabilizing currencies? The guests from overseas were not visibly impressed. As for the EU, which this year faces up to four crucial elections (Netherlands, France, Germany, possibly Italy), ‘mainstream’ leaders (one of the populist battle cries) continued to borrow some topics from the populist activists: unaccepted refugee candidates shall be returned quicker, austerity policies should give way to state-sponsored spending for infrastructure, social niceties, etc.
Yes, the EU is undergoing its most serious crisis after it was created about 60 years ago, but it also remains a success story. The question is: what are Europe’s options for not just surviving, but regaining momentum and initiative?
– Klaus Segbers
Brexit has won. It is not yet possible to understand all of the serious consequences of this popular – and populist – decision.
Three aspects seem to be central at this early moment after the counting of votes.
One, divorce negotiations have to be led in a constructive and fair spirit, but also in a way to make clear to everybody that exit means good-bye. There are Norwegian models of formalizing a new relationship, as well as Canadian and Swiss models. That remains to be seen. But the EU side has to make absolutely clear that leaving does not come with a premium, thereby setting an incentive for others to follow.
Two, there are politicians who want to play domino. Erdogan, not even being a member (and looking at his policies without a chance to become one), prepares a referendum on terminating the accession negotiations. Wilders in the Netherlands wants to have a referendum on ‘Nexit’ now as well. Others will follow. While the EU cannot and should not prevent that when national legislation allows for a referendum, these options should not look attractive. And, as expected, the first economic trends look disastrous.
Thirdly, the underlying problem is the huge and growing wave of popular resentment toward politics and politicians. And yes, decision makers in most countries are underperforming. The EU was and is not able to convey the impression that it can cope successfully with the challenges like the Eurocrisis and overspending in some countries; terrorism and related security issues; conflicts and failing states in the MENA area, the growing relevance of social networks, and the resulting migration streams; an unpredictable, rule-violating and assertive Russia; an arc of frozen conflicts from Ukraine to the Trans- and Northern Caucasus; and others. All of this is fuelling populism.
I invite you today to share your opinion on any or all of these aspects.|
– Prof. Dr. Klaus Segbers
Interesting and troubling things are happening.
In Austria, the two classical people’s parties have been pulverized, from a solid absolute majority to 22% in the recent presidential elections. In Germany, a similar trend is materializing, though more slowly, and not (yet) as dramatically. But chances are that here, the (formerly) two big parties, the social democrats and conservatives, will also lose their majority. In France, the Front National may make it next year into the second round of the presidential elections, and even may win (an outcome narrowly avoided last weekend in Austria where the FPÖ almost made it). In the USA, two out of the remaining three presidential candidates are outspoken and successful populists. A Trump or Sanders presidency would change the country. In Hungary and Poland, this is already a reality, to the puzzlement and horror of the EU. Also in Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, populists are gaining in influence. The recent referendum on accepting an association agreement with Ukraine was instructive.
The question this week is not an easy one. Let’s assume for a moment that in one of the major EU countries, and/or in the US, an outspoken simplifier would make it into the presidency, and start changing the independence of the legal institutions, the media, or the educational sector – how would we react? Let’s take as one extreme Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’, where a clear majority of professors are bribed into converting to Islam. And, as another option on the opposite side, a mass defection from political pressure. What would be the likely outcome in the case that radical populists take over the executive power in a major Western country as the result of a relatively normal election? What would we do?
– Prof. Dr. Klaus Segbers
Under the radar of the big news items, fueled by the migration and Russia crises, populism and the threat of Brexit, terrorism and (once again) the Eurocrisis, another issue is emerging: trade. Now while this seems pretty boring, tens of thousand ds of people assemble on squares in Europe to protest against the TTIP, the planned trade agreement between the USA and the EU, and its sibling, the TPP, the related treaty between the U.S. and ASEAN countries, also suffers from a mixed reputation. All current U.S. presidential candidates have positioned themselves more or less against these trade agreements.
And indeed, there is data that suggests previous trade agreements have cost industrial workers in America jobs. On the other hand, David Ricardo would argue even today that nothing better may happen to a country then healthy trade relations. As well, these deals have geopolitical benefits, serving as a way of tightening links between the US and EU in the case of the TTIP, and the US and its ASEAN partners with the TPP. Nonetheless, there are two major issues turning people against these negotiations: first, that there are useful or ‘just’ standards that would have to be reduced for assuring consensus among signatories; and second, that there is an inbuilt trend away from national legislation, towards arbitration in the case of conflicts.
Now how do we, the experts, assess these two treaties? Should they be finalized soon, before there will be a new U.S. administration, or does it pay off to let the talk linger indefinitely?
– Prof. Dr. Klaus Segbers
A few days ago, about 20% of the population of the Netherlands voted against the association treaty of the EU with Ukraine. Though this small number is by itself both insignificant and irrelevant, it is enough to put the fate of this treaty in dire straits.
Let’s leave aside why governments keep putting stuff for a referendum to start with. Everyone knows that the electorate doesn’t care about the concrete issues, nor is it modestly well informed about them, but rather uses the opportunity to express anger about the respective government.
The real issue here is where the relationship and attitude towards Ukraine from the EU side is standing two years after the Euro Maidan protests. We should also remember that the failure of the then Ukrainian government to sign an association agreement was the trigger for the civil protests in Kiiv and other Ukrainian cities, and also for the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, as well as for the emergence of rebels/ terrorists in two Eastern Ukrainian regions.
But now, things are looking different. Europe is engulfed in a row of crises (euro, migration, Russia, Brexit, terrorism, populism), and Ukraine is just one issue here, and not the most relevant one. At the same time, the current Ukrainian elites are involved in repeating their operetta from 2004 when they, for the first time, found the competition of their egos much more important than continuing to develop the first Maidan, and establish Ukraine as a European country. And now – here we go again.
What should the proper EU attitude be now, facing disarray in the political structures and economic situation of Ukraine?
– Prof. Dr. Klaus Segbers
Terrorism has arrived in Europe, not as a temporary phenomenon, but rather as a cultural phenomenon that is here to stay. It can happen any time, any place.
There are certain differences between this current wave of terror and carnage, and previous incidents, like in the 1970’s: the current actions are framed mostly in Islamist and cultural terms, rather than in a political language. The actions are not state sponsored. The perpetrators are not (only) the poorest and most marginalized. Some of this terrorism is homegrown. And there is zero space for negotiating with the jihadists.
Now the obvious question is how to react. Apparently, there are two road posts that may provide orientation, but they (at least partly) collide with each other. The first principle is to not give way to terror and blackmailing – not an inch. Liberal and pluralist societies will continue with their lifestyles, without anticipating self-censorship or unacceptable compromises. And two, the perpetrators have to be found and punished relentlessly.
Yes, there are problems here. Searching for terrorists may sometimes put some civil liberties in danger. Defending and developing open societies may also offer spaces for talking, proselytizing and committing terrorist acts.
How can our societies solve this contradiction?
The prospective of an exit of the UK from the EU has turned from a distant opportunity and a bargain chip into something quite real. It very well may happen that early this summer the EU will lose, for the first time, a member state.
For the EU, this could mark a potential watershed beyond which a much loser agglomeration of states would constitute a weaker union. Also, a less liberal one. There would be a whole range of agreements that have to be annulled, or re-negotiated. The EU also would have to secure its fabric and avoid that other member states also claim special rights for themselves.
For the UK a phase of deep uncertainties would begin. There are no bilateral trade agreements with individual member states of the EU. The future of the City of London would be even more uncertain. And Scotland may finally opt to leave the rest UK.
So would the EU become more consistent without a UK notoriously asking for a special relationship? Or would this indicate the beginning of the end?
The EU is in a difficult situation. One could also say: in a deep crisis.
There is an ongoing and unresolved Eurocrisis. There is the permanent threat of terrorist attacks. There is an ongoing wave of immigration hardly controlled by anybody, and putting in danger the Schengen rules. There is a Russian regime that keeps behaving assertively. There is a wave of populism especially in the Visegrad group in Central Europe, but not limited to it. At the same time, in the U.S. two populist candidates are gaining traction with voters, and China is escalating a crisis in the South China Sea. Germany’s chancellor, recently lauded as ‘Person of the Year’, is experiencing her most serious crisis so far.
The question is: Do you think that the dissolution, or collapse of the EU is a realistic possibility?
– Prof. Dr. Klaus Segbers