(Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
For the last three decades, Europe has been living under a distinct political system and its name is Liberalism. This system which developed in reaction to the demagoguery, discrimination and, ultimately, material stagnation of the previous era should not be confused with classical Liberalism although contemporary Liberalism borrows from it.
Instead, it is a complex amalgam of rationalism, cosmopolitanism, social democracy, Marxism and bureaucratic authoritarianism, which was crystallised with the creation of the European Union in the early 1990s.
In the economic sphere, Liberalism believes in free markets and competition as the optimal means of promoting growth. It seeks to minimise the role of the state, which exists mainly to uphold the rules of the market. And it supports the unrestricted movement of goods, capital and workers across international borders.
In the social sphere, Liberalism pursues the Enlightenment goals of liberty and equality, manifest in a culture of individual rights and freedoms, and relies on technical expertise rather than religious teaching as a source of guidance. It downgrades the importance of traditional social pillars such as the family, church and nation and instead promotes a flexible, secular, post-national vision of society, manifest in open borders, the mixing of populations and collective rights for minorities.
Meanwhile, in matters of governance, Liberalism combines an uneasy blend of democracy and authoritarianism. It supports free and fair elections, especially in states coming out of dictatorship. But it is also elitist. It does not like referendums and seeks safety in the transfer of government functions to specialised agencies, often international and invariably Liberal, which can regulate public life in isolation from the rough-and-tumble of democratic politics.
The Crisis of Liberalism
Through the 1990s and 2000s, Liberalism served Europe well, providing a high degree of political stability, a rise in living standards and, for many people, particularly in southern and eastern Europe, an unprecedented degree of freedom and opportunity. This ensured its dominance across much of the continent and substantiated its claim to be the centre ground of politics.
However, Liberalism has proven inadequate in changing times. As a system of government, it was nurtured in the 1980s when western Europe was a sheltered enclave behind an impregnable Iron Curtain and its emphasis on freedom in both the domestic and the international sphere was born of those times.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, it has struggled to manage the dramatic changes which have taken place since then such as the opening of Eastern Europe, the huge advances made in technology and communications and the transformation of the old Third World into a new economic powerhouse.
Instead, the solution to Europe’s last crisis has become the central cause of the next. Liberalism’s belief in the virtue of open trade and investment has led to the collapse of traditional economic sectors, the loss of jobs and communities, falling living standards, growing economic insecurity and, conversely, the rise of powerful multinational corporations and a financial super elite more powerful than many elected leaders.
And its commitment to open borders and generous interpretation of human rights has allowed millions of people from poor parts of the world to settle in western Europe, causing psychological stress to host societies and putting immense pressure on housing and public resources.
Over time, the effect of this has been to split society into three rigid ideological camps, two seeking to change the system and one to defend it. In one corner are social conservatives who condemn the loss of sovereignty and national democracy, the weakening of traditional values and identities, the negative effects of unfettered immigration and growing physical insecurity.
In the second are progressive anti-capitalists who decry the damage to society caused by globalised market forces – especially since the financial crisis last decade which lumbered taxpayers with the banking sector’s debts.
And in the third corner are the proponents of the Liberal status quo, the intellectual and economic elites with their transnational identities, forced by the challenge from left and right to defend the system they have constructed for themselves and fervently believe is right for the rest of society.
These three camps disagree with a ferocity unprecedented in recent times. Not only does each believe it is absolutely right and the others absolutely wrong but that their opponents are ignorant, misguided and selfish, if not downright evil.
The result is a growing destabilisation of the political environment. From outside the institutions, hardline challengers resort to threats and insults, physical intimidation, street protests and occasional mob violence, against both the establishment and each other. And the establishment hits back, disarming its opponents, who are denounced as cranks and extremists, and using its power and money to repudiate democratic choices which harm its interests.
Matters have not yet reached the point of no return. But the ideological radicalism, the three-way social schism, the simmering undercurrent of hatred and violence, and the unrest on the streets should worry those who know Europe’s modern history.
Many establishment figures believe that Liberalism will fix the problems of Liberalism. With the election of Emanuel Macron earlier this year and an acceleration in economic growth, they have convinced themselves that the superiority of Liberalism is self-evident; the most serious challenge is now behind them; and normal service can be resumed with a bold affirmation of Liberal values.
Unfortunately for them, this Panglossian analysis ignores the most basic fact of political life in Europe today – that many voters’ patience with Liberalism has run out. Governments have had a decade to correct the defects in the system first exposed by the financial crisis and have blown the chance to prove its viability. First, they let off the bankers and imposed austerity on the people. And then, to compound the folly, they opened Europe’s doors to vast numbers of migrants from Africa and the Middle East.
In doing so, the Liberal elites not only revealed their disconnect from the masses but their inability to operate outside the mental confines of a system in which concepts such as the free movement of capital, open borders and the rights of foreigners are seen as absolute values.
Unsurprisingly, large numbers of Europeans are now seeking a different kind of politics that can properly solve the problems thrown up by globalisation. In other words, they are ready for a systemic shift to a new, post-Liberal model of government.
The question then is who to vote for. In every country, there are radical parties from both the left and right which offer solutions outside the Liberal framework in which most parties operate, and many are gaining in support. But their appeal, by definition, is limited. Left-wing parties alienate conservatives with their perceived lack of patriotism and parties of the right alienate progressives with their attachment to capitalism.
Instead, the parties which are best placed to capitalise on popular dissatisfaction with Liberalism are those which can fuse the concerns of disaffected voters on both the left and the right. And that means the so-called populist parties such as France’s National Front, the Alternative for Germany, the Danish People’s Party, Poland’s Law and Justice, Hungary’s Fidesz and the Austrian Freedom Party.
To understand this, we must put paid to the idea that these parties are right-wing, for the simple reason that they are not. Certainly, they articulate the concerns of social conservatives, as UKIP does. But in matters of economics, their agenda has far more to do with Jeremy Corbyn than Nigel Farage.
Even less are they Far Right. Notwithstanding the fact that their party programmes have almost nothing in common with the nihilist visions of Hitler or Mussolini, they invariably sit to the left of a genuinely Far Right party, such as Bulgaria’s Ataka or the People’s Party-Our Slovakia.
Of course, unsavoury people associate themselves with these parties as they do with all parties. But in reality, the ‘racist’ label is one applied by a nervous establishment to discredit parties which are willing to challenge the orthodoxies of Liberalism – the modern equivalent of shouting ‘heretic’. More accurately, their politics cut across the traditional left-right divide. It is not conservatism, let alone fascism, but post-Liberalism – and many ordinary voters like it.
Across eastern Europe, post-Liberalism is now the dominant mode of government. The first country to make the transition was Hungary, where a charismatic leader was elected to power in 2010 with a manifesto for correcting the defects in Liberalism and restoring stability to his country after the European financial crisis. Subsequently, almost every country in the region has adopted a post-Liberal form of government, from Slovakia to Poland, Romania last year and now the Czech Republic, while Croatia and Slovenia stand on the precipice of change.
As the continent’s avant guard, eastern Europe – and especially Hungary – offers an insight into the nature of a post-Liberal polity. In matters of economics, the most salient feature is the limit placed on the free market. Strategic sectors such as energy, banking, utilities and food production have been brought back under national ownership and multinational corporations are closely controlled. The interests of workers, pensioners and consumers are protected via rising minimum wages and price caps on essential goods such as electricity; and governments maintain a generous welfare state financed by high taxation on incomes and consumption – often accompanied by deregulation and low corporation tax designed to stimulate the non-strategic private sector.
Meanwhile, post-Liberal governments have sought to restore a social cohesion which frayed during their country’s experiment with Liberalism. This has involved a renewed emphasis on the nation as the unifying feature of society. Immigration is tightly controlled by means of careful pre-selection, with a preference for culturally-proximate nations such as Ukrainians, a requirement to integrate and a sharp distinction drawn between economic migrants and refugees.
As the natural corollary to this, post-Liberal governments have attempted to restore the nation state as the primary unit of international politics and parliament as the key institution in domestic political life. And, conversely, they have sought to downgrade the role of unelected agencies at both the national and international level by reducing their powers and subjecting them to closer parliamentary scrutiny.
Of course, not everywhere in eastern Europe has adopted every one of these policies, since every country has its own particular politics and traditions. But so far, wherever this broad template has been tried, it has proven incredibly popular and its proponents rewarded by voters from both left and right. Years after being elected, provided they stick to their principles, post-Liberal parties enjoy opinion poll ratings in the thirties, forties and even the fifties, way ahead of their rivals.
Contrary to mainstream opinion, this is not because populations are brainwashed by corrupt politicians – after years of communist propaganda, eastern Europeans are generally too cynical to be duped – but because post-Liberal governments are doing what large numbers of people want them to do.
The picture is different in western Europe, where post-Liberal parties have yet to make a decisive breakthrough. But they clearly have momentum. In every election, their support rises – and that includes countries such as France and the Netherlands where the populists were allegedly defeated.
In some countries, such as Denmark, they have polled enough votes to hold the balance of power. In Austria, a post-Liberal government is on the cusp of taking power and opinion polls in Italy suggest the same in Italy next year. In Germany, the mainstream parties are struggling to form a government following the entrance of the Alternative for Germany. And everywhere, post-Liberal parties are disrupting politics-as-usual by taking votes away from the mainstream parties.
Britain is no exception to this, of course, since UKIP successfully managed to demand a referendum on membership of the EU which produced a rejection of Liberalism by proxy. As a consequence, both main parties are now moving in a post-Liberal direction, as their last electoral manifestos made clear.
For the moment, this trend has been temporarily arrested. Labour is handicapped by its need to maintain an unwieldy coalition of anti-Brexit Liberals and Leftist anti-Liberals, which prevents the party from articulating any clear policies. And a divided Conservative party suffering weak leadership is fixated on the issue of Brexit.
But the Conservatives are likely to change their leader in 2019 and, with opinion polls making clear a public desire for effective controls on immigration and greater state control of strategic sectors, a new leader who adopts a post-Liberal agenda is set up for victory in the next general election,
Evolution or Revolution
Inevitably, a systemic shift in Europe’s politics is bound to involve instability. But how serious this is will depend on the willingness of the establishment to accommodate the wishes of anti-establishment voters and, if necessary, cede power to post-Liberal parties.
The smoothest mode of transition is the one which eastern Europe has made. Here, Liberal parties which never had deep roots in society, have been resoundingly defeated, giving post-Liberal governments a free hand to reshape their polities. The process has not been a complete whitewash because of the dominance of Liberals in the media, civil society, the state bureaucracy and the courts – sometimes remnants of the old communist regime – who have thrown up resistance to post-Liberalism.
The response of governments has been to clamp down on these bodies, often by authoritarian means, which in turn has angered urban Liberals and led to street demonstrations. But this constituency, while loud and articulate, has been too small in number to prevent the shift to a new mode of government.
In western Europe, the path is likely to be rockier because of the size and power of the Liberal establishment, and the evidence to date is that defenders of the status quo will try hard to prevent a transition to post-Liberalism. The media is seeking to discredit its leading figures. Liberal parties are forming strategic coalitions to keep post-Liberal parties out of power. And rich individuals are using the courts to neutralise post-Liberal politicians and the outcome of ballots which contravene their interests, such as the Brexit referendum.
If post-Liberal parties do make an electoral breakthrough, they are likely to be thwarted by the media and the Liberal-dominated institutions of government, as Donald Trump is discovering in the United States. In contrast to eastern Europe, post-Liberal governments in the west will not be able to use authoritarian means to suppress these because of the stronger tradition of constitutionalism.
In this respect, a smooth transition probably depends on a mainstream party adopting a softened post-Liberal agenda, as the Austrian People’s Party has done. But where the establishment digs in, voters from both left and right who see their democratic choices blocked could resort to undemocratic means, including violence, to make their voices heard.
Moreover, the risk of instability is not confined to the domestic sphere because of the efforts by a Liberal establishment over many years to lock in their values at the European level by delegating the functions of government to multilateral bodies, whose job is to ensure the Liberal character of their constituent members, regardless of the ebb and flow of elections.
By far the most important of these is the European Union, the physical incarnation of the Liberal belief system whose very raison d’etre is to hardwire Liberalism into Europe’s domestic politics.
This poses a serious impediment to any post-Liberal government which wants to change its political system and inevitably converts a domestic problem into an international one. If the purpose of the EU is to uphold the Liberal system at the domestic level, then the EU becomes an unavoidable battleground between proponents and opponents of Liberalism. Those who want to uphold the status quo at home know the EU is their best defence against a post-Liberal insurgency. So too do those seeking change, who must break the EU’s hold.
Post-Liberal governments have three basic options. The first is to take their countries out of the EU, as the British government is doing under instruction from voters. The second is to ignore the EU’s prescriptions wherever they conflict with a vital national interest as many EU members have been doing, by repudiating the Schengen arrangements and refusing to accept migrant quotas (among many other things). And the third is to try and reform the EU, by allowing for greater ideological diversity at the domestic level, which is what Poland and Hungary are demanding.
All these approaches pose dangers to the EU. If post-Liberal governments take their countries out of it, the EU will contract and potentially collapse. If they ignore it, the EU will decompose. And if they insist on reforming the EU to fit the new politics, then it ceases to be the guardian of Liberal values.
Unsurprisingly, the EU’s response to this threat has been to reassert its authority. With one hand, its institutions have begun to discipline governments which disobey its rules, demanding adherence to the Schengen arrangements, issuing infractions against wayward states like the Czech Republic and Hungary, and threatening Poland with expulsion from the European Council. And with the other, the institutions have proposed a daring new phase of Liberal integration involving a deepening of the euro zone, tax harmonisation and a European military capability.
However, this is a perilous strategy because the EU’s attempt to entrench its Liberal character contradicts the desire of most Europeans for a return to national control over areas of policy such as immigration, freedom of movement and even international trade, in expectation that their own leaders will bring these under proper control.
The risk is twofold. Not only could the EU’s actions lead to a damaging confrontation between two sets of reformers, Liberals and post-Liberals, seeking opposite and incompatible goals. But it increases the danger of a renewed backlash by disaffected voters. They may not realise it, but the choice facing the European establishment is to adapt to the new political mood in Europe or ensure the EU’s demise.
All political systems come to an end and the inescapable reality is that a Liberal system designed for the benign conditions of the early 1990s is no longer seen as fit for purpose by many ordinary Europeans. In conditions of globalisation, the ideals of freedom and solidarity across borders have come up hard against the reality of economic insecurity and mass immigration, to widespread public consternation.
Already, Liberalism has broken down in eastern Europe and every political indicator – opinion polls, election results, the public mood and the changing terms of political debate – suggests it is badly cracking in the west. Short of some dramatic event which alters the current trajectory, a transition towards a new post-Liberal mode of government across much of Europe now looks inevitable.
The moment of truth will probably come with the next downturn in the economic cycle, perhaps at the end of this decade or the start of the next. With its excessive debts and pumped-up asset prices, Europe is at serious risk of a hard landing, especially since most governments lack adequate fiscal buffers and have sacrificed control of monetary policy to the ECB. In the elections that follow, western Europeans are likely to vote decisively against a discredited Liberal model.
If so, the remaining question is only how turbulent the transition to post-Liberalism will be. Will the European establishment in western Europe cede power to the new political forces as eastern Europe has done? Will it manage these forces by adopting their policies? Or will it resist them every step of the way? In short, is western Europe facing evolution or revolution?
The stakes are high because the very European order, with the EU at its heart, is at serious risk. As dawn breaks on the post-Liberal era, Europe’s ancien regime will soon be forced to make its choice.
Timothy Less is the Director of Nova Europa and an Associate Researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Forum on Geopolitics.