Can Europe Make It?

The choice: democracy caught between nationalism and federalism

The forthcoming elections, in France, Germany, and elsewhere, will mark a watershed. It is a time for choices to be made.

Ernesto Gallo Giovanni Biava
12 April 2017
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German chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán. Hannibal Hanschke/Press Association. All rights reserved.Altiero Spinelli, the founder of European federalism, wrote in the ‘Ventotene Manifesto’ (1941) that, “The dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties (…) falls along the line, very new and substantial, that separates the party members into two groups. The first is made up of those who conceive the essential purpose and goal of struggle as the ancient one, that is, the conquest of national political power (…). The second are those who see the creation of a solid international State as the main purpose; they will direct popular forces toward this goal, and, having won national power, will use it first and foremost as an instrument for achieving international unity.”

In essence, Spinelli was writing about a division between ‘nationalism’ and ‘federalism’. These days, 76 years since Spinelli (with the help of fellow prisoners Rossi and Colorni) jotted down his Manifesto; nationalism is again centre stage, while the idea of ‘federalism’ (or, more broadly, that of political integration) has been eroded by the malfunctioning and woes of the European Union (EU). Together with the decline of inter (and supra-) national institutions, however, nationalism is corroding the quality of democracy itself. For the sake of simplicity, let us divide the western world (and Europe) into ‘West’ and ‘East’, older and newer democracies.  

For more than twenty years Western Europe has witnessed the rise of populist nationalisms. The faces of Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, Nigel Farage and their likes are by now well-known and familiar to many, in the media, academia, and of course among voters. We have been reassured about their democratic credentials and respect for the ‘rules of the game’, but how far can we trust them? Can we trust somebody (Geert Wilders), who has repeatedly called for the ban of the Koran? How far has Marine Le Pen truly cut ties with her father’s legacy? Intolerance, racism, nationalism, criticism of ‘European values’ can hardly co-exist with democratic values and institutions, particularly at times of persistent economic crisis. Parties and politicians can pay lip service to democracy, but their real choice and actions will be influenced by the conditions they are living in (the ‘structures’ of so much social theory…). Furthermore, populist nationalism is also the outcome of the weaknesses of ruling classes which have too often chosen the not-so-democratic (yet comfortable!) option of ‘grand coalitions’, which in a sense are the degeneration of Spinelli’s ‘pro-international’ forces. 

Germany had a coalition government from 2005-2009 and then again since 2013. Italy experienced a national unity government under a technocrat, Mario Monti, in 2011-13 and then a ‘quasi’ grand coalition under PMs Letta, Renzi, and Gentiloni. Austria has seen the two major parties in power together since 2006. In countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, coalition governments are a kind of tradition, even if some ‘traditional’ parties such as Dutch Labour have meanwhile almost disappeared (see the recent elections). Coalition governments are somehow acceptable at times of crisis (as in World War Two Britain), but over the long term tend to become conservative, negotiate on every tiny issue, and lose sight of bolder political aims. Frau Merkel’s pro-European rhetoric has sadly translated into little else than (paternalistic but financially painful) criticism of ‘profligate’ southern European countries. This is dogmatic (or opportunistic?) allegiance to neoliberal diktats, nothing else. 

Eastern Europe suffered the consequences of imposed neoliberalism earlier and in a harsher way, and this has resulted in what are sometimes called ‘illiberal democracies’. This is not confined to academic or media-friendly labels, but is the way Mr Orban himself refers to ‘his’ Hungary. Orban has consistently rejected the liberal values which are at the heart of the European project.

While his politics have been rather opportunistic on the whole, there is no such thing as an ‘illiberal democracy’: it is a contradiction in terms. Trying to invert words and say ‘liberal autocracy’, as is proposed by some scholars, does not improve the terms of the equation. Orban’s Hungary has more than one authoritarian aspect and should be punished by the EU, even if – to be honest – it is a predictable response to the neoliberal excesses of those international forces (including Hungarian-born George Soros) which brought to Budapest the market without politics, not to mention European politics. The socio-economic wasteland of the 1990s has been once again filled by the sirens of nationalism – not such a big surprise, after all. Among ‘models’ Orban has referred to on more than one occasion, there dwell Turkey and China.

Turkey is a key case because until the early 2000s Ankara was looking west and keen on joining the EU, an option which was seen as a way to further modernise the country and consolidate its fragile democratic credentials. Now the country risks becoming a one-man show, especially if power-hungry Erdoğan wins the forthcoming constitutional referendum (16 April), which would transform Turkey into a presidential republic. Respect for freedoms and rights has declined tremendously, and the country is slipping towards authoritarianism and a toxic combination of neoliberalism and political Islam. Can this be a model for states like Hungary, which are still EU members?         

China, of course, is a much bigger and more important example. Its companies are sweeping the whole world in a whirlpool of investments, acquisitions, and economic diplomacy. China is no democracy, if political concepts make sense. However, it has handled globalisation better than any other country and has something to offer, namely the idea (less so the practice) of ‘meritocracy’, which is deeply embedded in Confucian culture. The Canadian scholar, Daniel A. Bell, has famously extolled China’s meritocratic virtues.

While reality might still be different from ideals, China has a lesson for the West. The quality of our political classes has tremendously declined, as the main events of 2016 have made clear. Democracy should help ‘select’, not just ‘elect’ leaders. Unfortunately, populist nationalists have been a poor response to the inadequacies of those ‘internationalist’ (or ‘federalist’, to return to Spinelli) elites who, particularly in Europe, should have governed in the twenty-first century.

The forthcoming elections, in France, Germany, and elsewhere, will mark a watershed. It is a time for choices. Nationalists claim to respect the democratic game but it is difficult to forget that even fascism claimed to be a democracy, but one ‘organized, centralized, authoritarian’. Which side of Spinelli’s divide do we choose?

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