Year LVIII, 2016, Single Issue, Page 7
The Need to Unite Europe to Save Democracy
The year that has just ended was certainly a difficult and, in many ways, traumatic one. In 2016, the feelings of discontent and anger that had long been brewing in public opinion across Europe and the United States finally brimmed over, leading to protest reactions that were reflected in the results of all almost all of the year’s major votes.
The causes and deep roots of this outpouring of rage and frustration, which is driving a seemingly unstoppable growth of nationalist-populist and xenophobic movements, have already been extensively analysed and described in detail. First of all, the Western world is suffering the backlash of the globalisation that the West itself actively drove and encouraged in the first place. Indeed, with considerable arrogance, the West, on the strength of models that hindsight has shown to have been hastily and poorly formulated, and in particular on the strength of the deeply flawed ideological and political thinking that has underpinned and been used to justify government decisions and policies of recent decades, actively championed and promoted this phenomenon. This error of judgement is now recognised as such by all the forces and currents of liberal democratic thought; and it is an error that the Western governments of Europe and the USA have attempted, at least in part, to rectify as they have addressed, with varying degrees of success, the emergencies thrown up by their different systems.
Before going any further, it must be stressed that globalisation has been, for the world as a whole, a huge opportunity. It has enabled four-fifths of the countries that 20 years ago were stuck in a state of underdevelopment to begin developing, and it has allowed five-sixths of the population of the underdeveloped world to break free from their previous state of poverty or absolute poverty. Conversely, for the Old World that previously enjoyed the monopoly on wealth, globalisation has been something of a psychological trauma, all the more so because it is also associated with a number of other, extremely complex issues. The main one concerns the technological revolution and its effects on the labour market, which have actually been far greater than the impact of the increased competition brought by globalisation. Today’s new technologies have enormous potential for improving the quality of life of our societies, but, as is true of any profound change, in their present, initial stage they are having highly destabilising effects (on different segments of the population and different regions) that society has not yet learned to handle. Added to all this, there is the problem of the aging population that, in the Western world, and in European countries in particular, is looming increasingly large and starting to threaten the solidity and sustainability of the different welfare systems. Finally, this whole picture is exacerbated and further complicated by the current severe geopolitical instability, in turn aggravated by the absence of an international order capable of promoting a cooperative equilibrium in what is now an interdependent world. All this adds up to a situation of anarchy that, stemming above all from the West’s political weakness, is quite alarming due to the enormous difficulties it presents in terms of security and the management of migratory flows.
This explosive cocktail of challenges, transitions and changes has inevitably provoked widespread reactions of fear and anxiety, especially among those sections of public opinion that are culturally least equipped to cope with change. Many, in seeking to explain the protest reactions, loss of faith in the establishment, and drift towards nationalism — trends that emerged clearly in the results of the recent votes in Britain and the United States, and even in the constitutional referendum in Italy —, have associated them with the sections of society hardest hit by the recession. However, first impressions notwithstanding, on closer inspection, what actually emerges quite clearly is that, specific cases apart, there was no precise link between economic hardship and protest voting. The deciding line in all these votes was above all cultural, namely a line separating those who feel helpless and threatened in the face of challenges and changes they cannot understand (and nearly always do not even want to try and understand), partly because of the complex analysis required, and those who, on the other hand, are able, for different reasons, both to grasp the nature of the processes under way, and to equip themselves to tackle the new situation, even though the advantages of doing so may not be immediately tangible.
In today’s global, interconnected and interdependent world, it is starting to become clear that the true demarcation line with regard to political behaviours, the line separating the desire for progress from the desire to resurrect the past, is the one already identified by Altiero Spinelli in the Ventotene Manifesto. We refer to the line dividing those who, consciously or unconsciously, pursue integration and, in so doing, pave the way for the creation of supranational institutions able to govern interdependence democratically and for the common good (and are thus drawn to supranational federalism as a political theory and practice), and those who, instead, are drawn to nationalism, which argues that each country should pursue its own particular interest, and that divisions should be preserved and integration opposed. It is, therefore, also the line that marks the boundary between those who want to strengthen and develop democracy and those who allow themselves to be attracted by autocratic visions; between those who want to build peace and those who, perhaps unconsciously, create the conditions that make the war possible. Nationalism, in the age of global interdependence, is a dead end, since there exist no national recipes for development. For the same reason, attempting to keep globalisation outside one’s national borders can only aggravate the problems of the single systems and societies, further deepening the crisis and feeding anarchy. Globalisation is a process from which there is no turning back and which cannot be avoided or reversed by pursuing and seeking refuge in some idealised past which, of course, was never as idyllic as it may be portrayed. Instead, globalisation is a fact that we need to learn to confront and manage with adequate political and cultural tools.
These tools are, precisely, the ones provided by federalism, in short, the same ones that first underpinned (and have since supported) the process of European unification, even though, to date, they have been used only partially, and therefore still insufficiently and inadequately. But it is only by developing them and implementing them to the full that politics can hope to find the points of reference that will make it possible to manage and govern the new world order. This is why the path chosen by Europe has such enormous significance for the evolution of mankind as a whole; after all, Europe has been, and still is, the test bed of democratic governance of international interdependence.
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Europe and the United States are currently living through crises that are profoundly different, even though they share the same underlying problems. The difficulties of the United States, once the world’s sole superpower and “winner” of the Cold War, as well as the undisputed driving force of globalisation, is now having to manage its declining hegemonic power and its transition to a new and difficult role as a nation that, despite remaining the world’s strongest country, is no longer in a position to exercise absolute supremacy, and is therefore having to redefine its strategic priorities. Without underestimating the enormous impact that global competition and the effects of technological development have had and are still having on the US economic and social system, the real reasons for Trump’s victory lie precisely in this new predicament, especially geopolitical, in which the United States now finds itself. The truth of this is demonstrated by the fact that the economic choices and policies of the Obama administration, designed both to rebalance the system (through the introduction of greater controls over the financial sector and measures to provide incentives for manufacturing) and address the growing social gap between the small minority of the extremely wealthy and the rest of the population, were in fact effective. Indeed, although his government was, to a large extent, impeded by a hostile Congress, the figures recorded bear witness to its considerable efforts to improve the redistribution of wealth, showing substantial increases (at rates not recorded since the 1970s) in the income of middle and lower-middle class American families, and a great improvement in the economic conditions of the lower classes (the proportion of the poor in the US population has fallen over the past 25 years from 40% to the present 10%); furthermore, unemployment has returned to normal levels, even though job quality continues to be a problem in many areas of employment.
The record of the Obama administration in the area of foreign policy, however, is less positive. Although the start of the US decline dates back to the late nineties and was accelerated by disastrous choices made during the Bush presidency, Obama (despite recording some important successes) was the first US president forced to confront the loss of US authority on the world stage. He also had to assume responsibility for inaugurating a new era that sees the United States acknowledging that it is no longer able, by itself, to manage the global geopolitical balance. Accordingly, he has also been the first to personally experience, on behalf of his country, the changed attitude of America’s partners on the international stage. There have, indeed, been numerous displays of real disrespect towards Washington, particularly from the BRICS countries as well as from former allies that have now become hostile. Equally worthy of note has been the United States’ gradual loss of control over its traditional areas of influence, together with the uncertainties it has shown and the contradictions that have arisen in its attempt to pursue and promote the creation of a multipolar world order without having first revisited and revised its strategic tendencies, still shaped by old Cold War doctrine.
The United States knows that it is still the world’s most influential country; to quote Obama “if we don’t set the agenda, it doesn’t happen. There is not a summit I’ve attended since I have been president where we are not setting the agenda, where we are not responsible for the key result”. But this knowledge is accompanied by a growing awareness that the USA “can’t fix everything”, and this is why America is now struggling to redesign its role in the world. America’s difficulty in this regard, as Obama has often underlined, is certainly exacerbated by the political and military vacuum in Europe, which lacks the capacity to support the USA and help it to initiate the building of a new, cooperative global balance. The result of all this is a clear impasse that has increased the fears of the citizens and determined their lack of faith in the establishment and in the “liberal” policy that Obama has done his best to represent, by striving to convey the message that the reason for America’s influence in the world lies in the strength of its political model, values and ideals.
It is therefore no coincidence that, as careful analysis of the vote in the presidential elections shows, it was the poorer classes that tended to vote for Clinton, while Trump’s supporters were less likely to be afflicted by economic hardship as by the nervous uneasiness of those who see their social and cultural status threatened by today’s rapidly changing world, with its as yet unknown challenges. All this explains why the Trump camp managed to gather so much consensus by using anti-establishment rhetoric (references to politicians who do not know how to protect American citizens, for example) and the nationalistic slogan “America First”, and by launching accusations against free trade (held to be responsible for relocation of production and seen only as a form of unfair competition). On a cultural level, Trump’s victory marks a resurgence of the xenophobic and racist tendencies that are still so strong in a section of American society, while politically it corresponds to unquestioning support for a political programme that, breaking with the ideology of a liberal-democratic United States that shoulders responsibility on the world stage, will instead see global challenges tackled from the perspective of how America can best exploit its relative supremacy at the expense of its international partners. In short, a plan for a new form of US hegemony, entirely rapacious, which leaves no scope for win-win solutions.
America’s new stance will impact heavily on international balances. Although it is impossible to predict exactly what decisions the new administration will make and the details of its choices, until Trump is eventually beaten, either by events or in the course of the next presidential campaign, there can be no doubt that it will attempt to use US power — political, economic and military — to secure immediate national advantages. There have already been a number of signs that this is the case: statements suggesting that the existing global agreements on international trade will be rejected en bloc, to be replaced with bilateral negotiations between the USA and single countries, in which America would be better placed to bring its force to bear; the declared intention to drain resources from the rest of the world to finance domestic investments, thereby increasing the national debt and exploiting the benefits of the dollar’s status as the world reserve currency; the attitude of absolute contempt that has been shown towards the European Union (illustrated, among other things, by the hand of friendship extended tothe UK, which once again finds itself, contrary to Obama’s position, high on the agenda of the US administration), and the hostility that has been shown towards China. Coming in the wake of two decades of growth and development created and guaranteed — errors notwithstanding — by the quest for integration of the world market, all these are attitudes that are bound to have very negative effects, also on the US domestic situation, and that, above all, will create further instability and only weaken America’s power in the world, thereby increasing the likelihood of reactions of hostility and opposition.
It only remains to hope that the strength of the American system, and the strength of its culture and democratic public opinion, will make it possible to reverse this situation quickly, before the damage is too great. This hope stems from the fact that, despite its current difficulty redefining its strategic role and identity in the world, the United States remains a great country founded on solid and deeply democratic institutions, a country with a wealth of human and cultural, as well as political, resources. But another decisive factor will be the way in which the powers most challenged by this new cycle in American politics react to the new situation; we refer, in particular, to China’s capacity to respond to this new attempt at American hegemony, but above all Europe’s capacity to gain its own independence and shoulder global responsibility.
For the Europeans to rise to the challenge presented by the arrogant Trump presidency and stop abdicating their responsibilities in the field of foreign and security policy, it is surely now clear to all but the belligerently nationalistic that Europe has no choice but to complete its political unification. This has, in fact, been apparent ever since the explosion of the financial and economic crisis exposed the fragility of a system only half built. Europe’s problem, then, contrary to America’s, is that of accepting the challenge to grow, and its solution lies in the hands of the European people and depends only on their will. Even though Europe is seemingly weaker than other areas of the world at the present time, the fact is that the Europeans could increase their strength exponentially simply by proceeding with Europe’s political unification, and thereby completing the building of the Community edifice. Since 2012, the European institutions have been preparing reports indicating the objectives to be pursued to this end, and setting out possible roadmaps and initiatives. What is more, right now, the European Parliament is helping to carry forward a comprehensive project of tremendous political value: the Committee on Constitutional Affairs recently approved two reports, one jointly drafted by MEPs Mercedes Bresso (S&D) and Elmar Brok (EPP) and the other by Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE), which will be discussed in a plenary session in February and should therefore be ready in time for the European Council meeting at the end of March in Rome. The first shows that the Lisbon Treatyalready offers tools that can be used, immediately, to strengthen and deepen the integration of the Economic and Monetary Union, increase the efficacy of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, and start adapting the common instruments for the protection of internal security. The second draws attention to the need to reform the Treaties to give the EU the means to act effectively, eliminating the abuse of opt-outs and derogations, and instead creating two different levels of participation in the European Union. At the first level, membership would be restricted to the single market, while at the second level participating countries would be members of the Economic and Monetary Union, which, the core of the European system, would no longer operate according to an intergovernmental mechanism, but would instead be highly integrated. Accordingly, the eurozone would have its own fiscal capacity, autonomous resources, a European treasury and a federal decision-making system. Within this framework, the European Commission would become a true European government.
All that is needed, therefore, is for the member states’ leaders to prove that they have the political will, courage and ability to take the crucial step of sharing their sovereignty; unfortunately, however, the signs of tension over these issues that have been emerging from meetings of the Council, and especially of the European Council, are certainly not encouraging. The national governments seem to be prisoners of their own disunity, a state that emphasises their weakness and that of the European institutions, and is jeopardising democracy itself in our continent. In the current global setting, it is crucial to have the decision-making capacity to respond promptly and effectively to the multiple crises that tend to arise, and in this regard the Europeans find themselves entirely lacking. The European political system is built to go on working at national level, but this is a level that has no effective and authoritative responses to offer; meanwhile, at European level, where, instead, answers really could be found, there are no decision-making mechanisms and policy instruments in place for implementing them. As a result, democracy is under siege in our countries and the very survival of the European Union is under threat. If Europe is to endure, the citizens’ anxieties and fears must be met with concrete responses, while the temptation to retreat in the face of the growing chaos must be resisted.
Leaving aside the specificities of the two situations, Britain’s decision to leave the EU, like the resounding victory of the “No” side in the recent Italian referendum, both show that the fear and uncertainty that lead people to prevent change are currently very strong in public opinion and manifest themselves, at the earliest opportunity, through decisions that are based not on support for a true alternative project — no such project exists —, but rather on the desire to escape from reality. But this is only a temporary reaction, however, because as Greece has already shown us, and as the Austrian electorate recently confirmed, when the true (and devastating) implications of this escape from reality become clear, support for a reasonable course of action prevails once again. All the surveys show that in the key eurozone countries there continues to be support for a Europe that is truly able to act and respond in a concrete way to the various crises — a Europe capable of offering new horizons based on shared ideals, and ready to fight to affirm, globally, a model underpinned by clear values. This support must not be wasted, but must instead be harnessed as the foundation for courageous choices that will change the public’s perception and revolutionise their expectations.
The task of bringing this about falls, first of all, to the national governments, which, to save democracy in Europe, need to combine internal responsibility, fairness and solidarity among themselves with courage at European level; but, alongside this, everyone needs to learn not to be afraid of fighting for change, which is needed in all countries, but first and foremost in Europe. The forthcoming anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome, on 25 March 2017, could mark the start of Europe’s salvation. It is the responsibility of us all to see that it does.