The EU faces existential threats. Britain has voted to leave. As if that weren’t bad enough, the whole EU project is threatened by strong socially conservative forces in The Netherlands, Hungary, Poland and France. Support is wafer thin in countries like Spain and Greece which have borne the brunt of austerity policies applied by unelected bureaucrats. Italy faces a defining referendum in a couple of weeks. Ostensibly it has little to do with the EU, but prime minister Renzi’s opponents hope to tap into discontent with Europe.
Moreover, it’s main geopolitical ally, the United States, has now elected a man few in the European corridors of power supported or wanted. Demonised and castigated, senior European politicians must now perform a volte-face to build links to the new power in Washington.
Europe’s political class opened its eyes in stunned panic on 9 November. “What have they done?”. The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States not only confounded the liberal intelligentsia. It sent shockwaves around the Chancelleries of Europe.
Surely, they reasoned, the American people would not elect The Donald given what he stands for. Safely cocooned in their bubbles they convinced themselves his brand of politics would not, could not, hold sway. Anyone who dared to suggest Trump might win was dismissed as crazy, a bigot. Heads were buried in the sand. Because they knew the defeat of Clinton would also represent the defeat of their brand of politics. Not so much the end of history as the renaissance of it.
Francis Fukuyama, in his now infamous essay written at the end of the Cold War, predicted the end of ideological conflict, coupled with the ultimate victory, and hence spread of Western-style liberal democracy. Fukuyama finished his essay with the prophetic words: “the end of history will be a sad time. […] The worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.”
What he predicted was music to the ears of the EU. After all here was a political project constructed, out of necessity, on the basis of a post-political world. This was to be the EU’s time. We saw moves to develop a single market with the accompanying technical rules and regulations, enlargement to 13 new countries with the dismantling of borders, the introduction of an independent central bank and new currency, and the principled rejection of realist geopolitics.
Rather than being concerned with fighting communism, this new post-political order could instead focus on shared values, on breaking down barriers to trade, securing international agreements to fight climate change, and extending social rights.
But somewhere along that road, the EU and the whole Western political class failed to bring its people along.
And instead of a more peaceful, liberal world, we saw the rise of radical terrorism, along with the failed states created in the name of spreading liberal democracy by the doomed policy of western interventionism.
Vast swathes of the American population, just like their British cousins, as well as many EU citizens in Poland, Hungary and France, seemingly do not feel comfortable in this post-political world order created since the fall of the Berlin Wall. They are joined by countries as diverse as Russia and Brazil, India and China, in wanting to challenge it.
In Europe it is high time we stopped questioning the motives of these people and instead started to draw the correct consequences and adjusted course accordingly.
The perceived gap between what is happening at EU level and the concerns of the common people is wider than ever. The clock is ticking before the French elections in May next year. It seems they have at least got the message post-Brexit. More focus on securing Europe’s borders is planned. A more relaxed fiscal policy is also coming. A crackdown on global corporations avoiding their social responsibilities is gathering pace.
But will this be enough to remind Europeans of the value of the Union? More must urgently be done to underscore the role of the EU as a bulwark against the excesses of globalisation. The return of politics dictates a move away from a technocratic approach to one which the populations of Europe can get behind. Otherwise the field is left open to the extremes.
And then there is the international situation. Will the EU be left stranded, alone, holding the flame of the old order, the bastion of free trade and open borders? Or will it succeed in re-aligning itself to the new realities of an international system based more on interests than values?
The early signs are not uniformly encouraging. Merkel said she looked forward to working with Trump, but only on the basis of the “shared values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law, and the dignity of man”. Juncker and Tusk did slightly better but still emphasised the “shared values of freedom, human rights, democracy and a belief in the market economy”. European leaders should be careful not to isolate themselves by talking about liberal values, while Trump cuts interest-based deals over Ukraine, Syria and other conflicts in our neighbourhood.
The EU has much to offer its citizens. It can help to stabilise our neighbourhood in ways that are consistent with our common strategic interests. It can protect the great social advances of the last 25 years. It can work towards greater opening of markets while protecting people’s rights.
The end of history Fukuyama predicted, and the post-politics world that followed, have ultimately created Brexit and Trump. The EU now needs leaders who realise this, take advantage of the new situation, and act quickly to save the project.