The clash of European democracies

Europe needs greater political consensus and increased convergence or rapprochement between its different societies.

Ideology has many advantages in politics and international relations. Viewing every human problem or conflict from the same prism spares us the unpredictable and rather ungrateful process of analyzing, from various angles, the context in question; pros and cons of all possible options, and weighing new merits that would warrant a political path different from our personal preferences, convictions and prejudices. One gains security, a scarce asset in these times of uncertainty and fear. Infallible political ideas and dogmas also give us something to believe in at a time when it seems that there are no longer any holy tenets, our common institutions are shaky and conventional leadership lacks credibility. 

And so, after a number of years during which we grew conveniently accustomed to the illusory notion of the end of great ideologies, this new era of systemic crises, chaos and instability has triggered a resurgence of ideological Manicheanism and of political polarization in general. Indeed and in parallel to the negative yet powerful allure of fanaticism and populism, Manicheannarratives are more in style than ever, testifying to the limited modernization brought about by the information society. Whereas such a society should result in a predominance of balanced debates and political language, we actually see a great deal of cacophony of intolerance and confrontation, with social networks often used as channels for bile and libels, hate speech and inflammatory statements. In times of existential anxiety, a tribal temptation rules that seeks good guys and bad guys, just and unjust, heroes and evil.

This return of ideological Manicheanism and of polarizing rhetoric, both in home affairs and foreign policy, raises many question marks, and shows many shadows. And one begins to harbor doubts, mirroring Winston Smith, the character from George Orwell’s famous novel ‛Nineteen eighty-four’, on one of those ordinary days when he is routinely destroying documents at the Ministry of Truth. This form of politics abhors consensus-building and the very concept of democratic compromises. We see instead a systematic distortion or rejection of the logic of facts, coupled with predictable conspiracy theories that may have proven to be largely true in some cases (abuses in Iraq) but perhaps not in others, or not only (such as the euro zone’s alleged evil plans against Greece; the spurious external influences in Ukraine’s Euromaidan or in Spain’s Indignados movement). Without a basic agreement in the description of facts, it is nearly impossible to reach agreements on prescription and solutions to the problem.

New and not-so-new Manicheans incur in flagrant contradictions. Take, for example, these interest-based coalitions between leftist and extreme-right forces in the EU on matters such as Putin’s Russia (and Ukraine), Venezuela or the euro. Strange bedfellows that are nonetheless becoming so usual that dubbing them contra natura makes no longer sense.  Or the remarkable ideological pirouettes that attack, as a rule, Yankee imperialism (always evil and guilty), yet simultaneously turn a blind eye, to say the least, to the regular excesses of the Kremlin’s imperialism against many of its neighbors or against Russian citizens themselves (Russia, here, always being the defenceless victim). Added to this is a negative brand of activism that is basically anti-Others; while this attitude may perhaps be necessary in order to trigger shocks in stagnant or abusive political systems, it seems to have little to contribute on issues such as constitutional reform or our new global challenges. Naturally, this polarization stifles the political center, as noise and absolute stances prevail over more nuanced positions.

There is something of these trends, coupled with significant doses of shared political irresponsibility, shaping political speech around the euro crisis and the Greek drama. Such is certainly the case when it comes to the rhetoric and political language surrounding Alexis Tsipras’ referendum and overall the new chapter in this crisis.

In the finest Manichean style, Syriza’s supporters presented the matter in absolute terms, as a clash between democracy and the Greek people on one side (here, it is implied, as representing all of the other peoples), and the anti-democratic, oppressive Europe of the Troika on the other. It is the classic narrative about victims and executioners, the epic battle of the weak (and good) against the strong (and evil). This battle of legitimacies is brutally efficient from a tactical viewpoint, as we have seen, if only because of the undeniable political mobilization this polarizing speech can set in motion. But the problem is rather more complex than that.  Beyond key issues which are no doubt highly questionable, such as economic policy mistakes, institutional over-reach and austerity programs, this narrative and its own reality crashes headlong into other realities. Deep down, what we are witnessing is a singular clash of European democracies and their different political cultures. This clash has always been present in the European project, even during its golden period, but the crisis has pushed it to the fore, and now threatens the political fragmentation of Europe. Challenges such as the one posed by Tsipras are one example, but there are others.

In this scenario, the clash of democracies pits Tsipras’ Greece against not just Germany (an easy “enemy”), but also –although this is often forgotten- against the vast majority of the other European demos. Other demos which can even be tougher than Berlin, including the Belgians, the Dutch, the Finnish and practically all Eastern Europeans, who underwent reforms and experienced much sharper GDP drops than today’s Greece. Thus the growing references by Eurogroup members to their own democratic legitimacy (it’s always unpleasant to be taught lessons in democracy, rightly or wrongly, all the more so if they come with insults). Thus Germany’s cold messages on the need for any new bailout to be approved by the Bundestag and overall for the primacy of the constitutional channels of the German nation. There is much talk -generally in pejorative terms- about a mercantile Europe in opposition to a popular, quasi-revolutionary Europe that styles itself as the antidote to the former’s unquestionable contradictions and inconsistencies. The fact is, creditors largely represent old merchant Europe, that strategic axis of international finance and trade. It is not surprising to see several forms of euro-skepticism growing in some of the EU’s founding states, with a growing rejection of the notion of solidarity narrowly construed as endless unrecoverable subsidies and lax immigration policies.

Ultimately, Greece and other aspects of today’s deep European crisis underscore once again the weak foundations of what the visionary Tony Judt described two decades ago as Europe’s “grand illusion.” The illusion was, essentially, to believe that a project conceived in very specific historical circumstances, and for Western Europe alone, could be extended indefinitely and on the same terms to such notably different people and nations, especially once prosperity declines and many of the European project’s initial goals had been accomplished. Much of Europe’s grandiose rhetoric toes these lines, even as states continue to fiercely defend their own interests behind the scenes, a tendency on the rise in the wake of the EU’s crisis of trust and the growing insecurity to the East and South. On the other hand, economic integration has not contributed to a true political, social and cultural convergence among European states and nations, and divergences are most visible at times like these. 

As long as we lack a new European Utopia for the 21st century, greater political consensus and increased convergence or rapprochement between often different societies, the concept of Europe will remain “too large and too nebulous around which to forge any convincing human community”, to use Judt’s own words. In the best of cases, it is an excuse to paper over our present problems. In the worst of cases, at this time of Manichean thought, nationalism and polarization, it becomes a cause for confrontation instead of union among European democracies worried, again, for their future.

This is an extended version of an original version published by El Mundo (8 July 2015).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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