Demonstration for real democracy in Europe. Emma Espejo/Getty Images. All rights reserved.
Latin American democracies used to look themselves up in the mirror of European democracies. The resulting reflection was a portrait which Latin America wished to bear a resemblance to. Today, however, it is mirroring a distorted picture, full of anxieties, tensions and even regressions. And this should certainly be of concern in both hemispheres.
Latin America is vigorously facing different possible scenarios on the path to full democratization and consolidation with guarantees. As much as the region carries the weight of very serious problems of violence, corruption, and drawbacks related to its economic and labour models, it is also circulating ideas, proposals and invigorating experiences which should be understood in all their potential by Europeans.
Europe, meanwhile, is mired in an existential debate. Both within its borders and in the world at large, it appears weakened in its role as promoter and defender of the core values of democracy, tolerance and social justice that have given it its meaning, and that have provided a few decades of unprecedented prosperity and freedom.
Latin America can obviously still learn from Europe but, more importantly, Europe must begin to learn from Latin America. The times of European hegemony are over. Both spaces need now to reinforce each other in order to preserve the gains that they have achieved in terms of rights, freedoms and democracy, as opposed to less tolerant geopolitical areas.
A brief overview of democracy in the world today, shows that we are facing a recessive, barely optimistic scenario. We are witnessing how the aim of achieving stability has overridden any democratic awakening in the Middle East and the Arab world. Looking eastwards, Russia is an emerging declining power, emerging militarily, but sharply declining economically and socially, and has become an increasingly assertive champion of illiberal democracy. Besides, Putin’s attitude in Ukraine and Syria is no joke. Further East, massive China is prioritizing internal growth and economic sustainability over any democratic advance. Africa is moving along the path of development, but faces a long list of challenges, and achieving democracy is on that to-do list. But even in the United States, the world champion for liberal democracy, the entire political spectrum is managed by a plutocracy. Almost no one talks about the real problems of the country; its leadership in our multi-polar world is weakening and losing ground partly thanks to its own mistakes.
If all that is true, Latin America and Europe would then be the spaces where hope of achieving further progress in building vibrant and progressive societies is still alive. But in the face of the current struggle, which in Latin America could be exacerbated if the change in the economic and perhaps also political cycle is confirmed, Europe today finds itself at a very low ebb. The European project represented a peaceful and prosperous aftermath to a long and heavy civil war (1914-1945). Coming out of this incredibly destructive phase, which had a devastating impact for the world at large, Europeans managed to set up a common project of union and progress which has been, undeniably, a success story.
Through progressive integration and consensus, it attracted more and more countries through successive enlargement waves. For one state after the other, access to the European Union appeared to guarantee the internal strengthening of the values that constitute the three pillars on which the project was built: democracy, tolerance and social justice. And the Lisbon Treaty guaranteed “an ever closer union”.
Cracks in the European shop
The perception – and, in fact, the reality – was that European citizens obtained not only democratic guarantees, but prosperity, free mobility, more and better markets. Being European meant, basically, being a winner. But this integration success story was truncated by the great crisis of 2008, which had a very disruptive consequence: the emergence of winners and losers in the continent, especially from 2010. And the losers have begun to think that the European Union or, more abstractly, “Brussels” is to blame. The middle and lower classes have lost out for the first time since the war, and a mood of suspicion and mutual distrust has come down on Europe, from Berlin to Athens, from Copenhagen to Lisbon, from London to Madrid.
The North distrusts the South, and vice versa, especially on economic policy issues. And internal inequalities resulting from the imposition of harsh fiscal austerity measures and draconian financial bailouts have left too many people in the lurch. But also, and more worryingly, yet another distrust has emerged between East and West, this time concerning values. It has to do with an illiberal temptation to renounce the basic principles of the rule of law (the independence of the judiciary and the media) which has a very negative impact on what is even more essential for the joint project: democracy and freedom of expression.
The crisis has heightened the persisting wealth differences and social fractures in Europe. These fractures have deepened and they now affect a very significant number of people who have lost their jobs and social benefits, and many have even fallen out of the system and are now living in social exclusion, not only in Spain and Greece, but also in richer countries such as Germany and the UK. The winners belong to the elites, and most of them remain fervent supporters of the Union, knowing that greater integration is the solution rather than the problem. But the losers have lost confidence and trust, particularly after the collapse of social solidarity values, which has weakened and undermined the collective democratic project. Some of them are now taking refuge in nationalism, xenophobia or euroscepticism; most of them, in apathy and disengagement.
Many took to the streets at the peak of the crisis but are watching, dismayed, how their illusions clash with realpolitik. The left, including many within the new left, has joined the nationalist right in their misunderstanding of the nature of the problem, missing the big picture by dismissing the European level and thinking small. Its leaders focus on domestic, national politics true politics! they claim - losing sight of the fact that the real problems are to be found at the European, if not global, level. The progressive agenda appears to have lost the battle against the neoliberal formulas that dominate the economy, and by putting all its energy into the battle for the small, domestic power, the European left also appears to be missing a reliable alternative, one that can be promoted throughout the continent and in the institutions in Brussels.
Meanwhile, blindness seems to have overtaken all European politicians, both left and right, not only regarding the single-currency design flaws and the calamitous failure to reduce inequalities (now that the prosperous period of the cohesion policies of the 80s and 90s is over), but also the challenges of external and internal security. In this sense, the Syrian refugee crisis is paradigmatic: while it was already clear in 2012 and 2013 that the pressure on countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which were hosting by then more than 2 million Syrian refugees, was unbearable, European bureaucrats proved incapable of assuming the challenge.
And now, when it is much too late, Europe appears still unable to react, which is astonishing, considering the history of Europe in the twentieth century. A positive reaction, at first, from Germany has backfired, and endless barbed wire lines the internal borders, including those that had already been dismantled by the Schengen Treaty, which was supposed to guarantee the free movement of citizens within the Union, one of the greatest achievements of European integration.
How many political and economic European refugees was Latin America able to host in the harshest times of the twentieth century? What is the responsibility of Europeans today? Spain, with a population of 46 million, has only granted asylum to 19 Syrian refugees in 2015. Nineteen! Richer countries, with an honorable tradition of welcoming refugees like the UK, are not doing much better.
To make things worse, the impact of international – even if domestically brewed –terrorism is threatening to give a new twist to the frightened and increasingly surveilled European societies, apparently willing to sacrifice rights and freedoms for the sake of an almost impossible security. The exceptional measures taken in France are supposed to be against terrorism but they end affecting basic rights of the people. As proven in Argentina and Peru, there are no shortcuts against terrorism: the preservation of the rule of law is vital for democracy.
European democracy matters in Latin America
What is at stake for European democracy is something that matters in the world but, particularly, in Latin America. The European core values of social justice, tolerance and democratic guarantees must withstand the onslaught of this long-lasting crisis. Beyond the structural problems of a slow-growing economy and an aging population which is also growing very slowly, there is no lack of regeneration proposals and solutions for change.
At different levels, we can see some prominent Europeans making proposals. Thomas Piketty proposes “A new deal for Europe”, George Soros is also making proposals for a peaceful and productive Europe. And even, from a more radical point of view, Yanis Varoufakis is making proposals, with the recent launch of his Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 in Berlin. We know what the solutions are, starting with greater political integration, a robust defense of social conquests, a more balanced, green and diversified economy, a common foreign and security policy - but we do not know how to get on with them without unnecessary breakage. The nation-state still lives on, although in some cases it is risking internal disintegration, such as in Spain, where Catalonia is calling for a state of its own in an empty effort to exercise a sovereignty that no longer exists.
The exercise undertaken by Alerta Democrática in Latin America, which consists in drawing possible scenarios for democracies in the future and a navigation chart, could prove useful to enrich the debate and influence a self-absorbed, problem-ridden European democracy that needs to look up. Despite much bigger problems, Latin America has been able to move forward, towards more and better democracies.
Both regions should persevere in defending the values they share, and in strengthening each other. It has been said that the success of European democracy and ithe European ntegration project will be a success not only for Europeans, but for a utopian though necessary future global governance project. Not only North and Latin Americans need the project to succeed, also the Chinese are genuinely interested in a prosperous Europe, projected into the future.
As an experiment – which is what the European project ultimately is –, the European Union is subject to a trial-and-error methodology. I would like to think that we find ourselves now in the error phase, but that the experiment as a whole will eventually succeed. Although its achievements are indisputable, success requires to remain vigilant, to seek allies, and to convince the younger generations that this is also their project, and their future.
By opening up and contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of the new Latin American democracies with the strengths and weaknesses of European democracies, and by looking into the struggles, experimentations and debates taking place here and there, we shall improve the chances of success of our common purpose: a free, prosperous and peaceful life for all. These hard times for Europe must raise awareness of the fragility of our open systems and the need for a continuous mutual strengthening with ideas and initiatives coming from as many places as possible.