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
As expected, the first two weeks of the new US government were erratic. While governance by Twitter (and intermittently by judges) is something of a new political science concept, these first economic, social and cultural decisions are quite consistent with pre-election statements.
There is an ongoing debate in western and Asian capitals on how to respond. Wait and see? Making bold statements to indicate limits of the accessible? Trying to be friendly? What is your take?
– Prof. Klaus Segbers
Here we go. Europe may fail. This is the first time I am writing such a thing (partly) publicly. There are dozens of questions relating to this possibility. I suggest you focus on one today: Should we all be partially to blame? You may have heard about (or even read) the widely discussed New York Times article by Mark Lilla on ‘The End of Identity Liberalism’ (see reading below).
Lilla’s basic point is that liberals (he covers the US, but his point may be extended globally) have enjoyed the luxury of preaching liberal values, while huge groups of their fellow citizens were completely indifferent, or even felt threatened and excluded by these values. According to Lilla, this often went hand-in-hand with preaching to the ‘uneducated’ – for them to better understand things (international trade immigration, sexual and other identity politics), and to accommodate these liberal values.
He sees here, one of the major reasons for the apparently unstoppable success of populism:
‘The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press had produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life’.
He suggests that a more careful liberalism would ‘quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale’, address what for many people, are difficult issues like religion and sexuality. Lilla also suggests that such a re-invented (maybe more civilized?) liberalism would address that ‘democracy is not only about rights’, but also includes duties such as the duty ‘to keep informed and vote’.
Please join me in this discussion and let’s delve into this quite complex issue of liberals’ responsibility for the rise of populism.
– Prof. Klaus Segbers
Exceptional events require exceptions. So let’s continue last week’s debate, after we discovered who won (at least the elections, if not the popular vote). But our focus now, will be on how to react to the new situation.
There is a puzzling variety of Western reactions following the election results in the United States. Some leaders (like the Japanese Prime Minister) seem to have bowed deeply. Others (Russia), expressed their (probably wee-founded) hopes to improve relations. But again, others like Chancellor Merkel, appear to be cooperative, based on some conditional expectations. The EU, all of a sudden, has decided to improve its cooperation in the external and defense fields, and even promises to spend more.
What is a viable strategy for handling a committed populist? Bandwagoning? Accommodation? Conditional cooperation? Kow-towing? Pragmatic restraint?
– Prof. Klaus Segbers
To hold a referendum seems to have become the newest way of externalizing difficult issues. For sure, there are countries with a long tradition of directly involving their citizens with all kinds of issues, like accepting foreigners or not, raising taxes or not, or to add a train or not. In Switzerland, people are used to it, and one could make the point that the political system there may be flexible enough to digest it – though a while ago, the almighty people voted in favor of limiting the movement of EU citizens which produced a problem for the de-facto Swiss membership in the common market.
But otherwise, referenda are blossoming, and regardless of whether they create confusion or not, seem to be gaining in popularity. We do not have to mention the Brexit referendum that failed to meet the expectations of their organizers (and subsequently outed them from office), and the consequences of which the UK and EU officials now have to focus on for years to come. But there was however, one referendum on accepting a certain number of asylum seekers in the EU framework in Hungary (that equally failed), which will now be circumvented by the government. There was another referendum on the peace deal in Colombia a few days ago – that one failed too, and both government and the formerly armed opposition, FARC, now have to remedy the damage. In November, Italy will hold a referendum looking for the consent of the people to streamline their so-far awkward decision-making process which is predicted to probably fail as well. Let’s not forget the referenda on planned EU treaty revisions that went down: Ireland rejected Nice in 2001, Denmark and Sweden rejected Europe in 2000 and 2003, France and the Netherlands rejected the EU Constitution in 2005, and so on.
The question for this week is: Why on earth are sane politicians continuing to put complex issues in the hands of voters who decide by whatever criteria, but rarely on the substance of an issue?
– Prof. 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