Understanding European Values in Challenging Times

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Adam Reichardt: The concept of “European values” is a difficult idea to concretely formulate. The idea of values in and of itself is often challenging to clearly comprehend and the universalism of values is a narrative that is often pushed by politicians and the elites without truly explaining what this means to ordinary people.

©Adam Reichardt, editor in chief of New Eastern Europe 

I. Introduction. European Values and our understanding

The concept of “European values” is a difficult idea to concretely formulate. The idea of values in and of itself is often challenging to clearly comprehend and the universalism of values is a narrative that is often pushed by politicians and the elites without truly explaining what this means to ordinary people.

Obviously, such values outlined in the European Values Study or the World Values Survey [1] like Solidarity, tolerance, community, or support for democracy are clear indicators of what European values are. But what is interesting is that these surveys and studies do not “tell” us what these values are but already assume their existence and attempt to measure the extent these values are adhered to by country. While such studies are invaluable to understanding who we are and what we believe and also help us understand our neighbours, friends and enemies – we need to be cautious with our interpretations. Ronald Inglehart and his colleagues throughout the years measured and argued that significant changes take place in value systems via processes like modernization and post-modernization, as societies move away from what researchers saw as traditional values. However, some controversies around these methodologies have brought certain critiques to the methodology and definitions, emphasizing the ambiguity of values – as I first mentioned in my remarks.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that since the end of the Second World War, and more specifically since the end of the Cold War, the idea of common European or Western Values became even stronger. Countries like Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic States all declared their “Europeaness” and their desire to “return to Europe”. Through a decade-and-a-half long struggle to join Euro-Atlantic structures like the European Union and NATO, these countries significantly altered their development as they integrated politically, socially and economically into Western structures. There is no doubt that the transition, while some argue may not be complete, was successful in this regard. However, it is important to note that a majority of these changes came as a top-down approach. There were of course some grassroots support for a lot of the integration, but this developed gradually, over time and especially as the benefits became more visible. I would argue that this top-down approach to the integration with the West is opposed to the prior struggle against the communist system which was much more grassroots approach. Hence, we see in this case that the political leaders took the initiatives of the grassroots movement and institutionalized them in their approach to integration in the following years.

Following the integration of the Central European and Baltic states, we then saw the same struggle for the application of European values spread even further East. This part of the story you all know quite well –but we can start with the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in 2004 and more recently the Revolution of Dignity.

In these cases, there was clear anti-system grassroots approach that was similar to movements in the 1980s in Central Europe. Moreover, in the Revolution of Dignity – a clear connection was made between the fight against the post-Soviet, oligarchic and corrupt system and the desire for an application of European values.

Yet, the world of 2017 is much different than even just a few years ago. We have to admit that we are now facing challenging times, for Europe and the West and it begs us to answer the question – How do we understand European values in these challenging times? Are European Values changing?  What does it mean for the future of the European Union? And what can it mean for those countries that aspire to be a part of this Western community, like Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova? Is there a risk that the idea of European-ness is changing? And lastly, how does outside influence affect this process?

This is the main focus of my discussion today. I hope that it will offer you an opportunity to understand from our point of view the current environment and allow you to reflect on how we understand the situation in the West and what it means for our common future.

 II. The rise of populism in EU countries?

Obviously the rise of populist and even nationalist sentiments throughout Europe and the West, including the United States, forces us to examine these questions and we need to first look at the source of the problem if we are truly to understand their meaning.

First and foremost, the concept of liberal democracy has become a hotly debated topic in Europe as of recent years. Many scholars and experts now agree that there is a crisis of liberal democracy in the West. As Francis Fukuyama wrote in 2012, “There is a broad correlation among economic growth, social change, and the hegemony of liberal democratic ideology in the world today. And at the moment, no plausible rival ideology looms. But some very troubling economic and social trends, if they continue, will both threaten the stability of contemporary liberal democracies and dethrone democratic ideology as it is now understood.” [2] Today, we can confirm that parts of this process are indeed taking place.

Since the end of the Second World War, liberal democracy has been considered the role model for governance in the West. The basic tenets of liberal democracy are not entirely agreed upon, and I will touch upon this a moment … but liberal democracy generally assumes an open, transparent government that has a foundation in the country’s constitution. The constitution outlines the separation of powers – of the three branches of government: judicial, legislative and executive. And each branch of power must be independent and able to balance the others. Moreover, the legislative branch should be seen as the direct representative of the people – the people’s voice on common issues. Through the rule of law, liberal democracies also guarantee protection of human rights and freedoms, like freedom of speech and a free press, freedom of assembly, religious tolerance and free elections. A free market economy should be the basis of liberal democracies. The idea of “free market” economy has evolved over time and differently in different parts of the world – some liberal democracies opt for more regulation of the economy, while others have allowed for more freedoms in economic sphere. But one concept that is key to liberal democracies – and this applies to elections or economics – is that competition is healthy, but it also must be fair.

So – this concept of Liberal Democracy (and in some cases with a social twist) is what post-war Europe embraced and became the core of the founding principles of the European Union. It is in the opening preamble of the Treaty on the European Union that all member states confirm “their attachment to the principles of liberty, democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and of the rule of law”. [3]

This is also the concept that was embraced by the newest members leading up to their accession – such as Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic – the transition was meant to bring the same living standards as Western Europeans to the Central Europeans and bring the spirit of liberal democracy even further East.  In 2004, the largest enlargement of the European Union took place with all of the Central European states and the Baltic states becoming members. In 2007, Romania and Bulgaria also joined.

Then, why is it that in 2016 and 2017 – some Europeans have started to see liberal democracy as a failed idea? If this is the core of European values, shouldn’t Europeans be attached to them?  From my point of view, I would like to offer a few reflections on why this may be the case.

First of all, when looking at the development of liberal democracy in Central Europe – we need to make a clear distinction. The ideas surrounding liberal democracy at that time – in the 1990s and early 2000s – were very much linked with the ideology of neo-liberalism. This is an important point to make here. Liberalism has many forms – ranging from social democracy, which is much more regulated, to neo-liberalism which was a return to more unregulated forms of the free market – promoting harsh competition with few social safeties. Neo-liberalism became dominant in many Western states over social democracy starting in the late 1970s and was emboldened as an ideology following the end of the Cold War – hence embraced by the political elites of Central Europe in the 1990s and early 2000s. [4] Many politicians and elites who called themselves Liberals are in fact understanding it in the neo-liberal form. What is more, coming back to a point I made towards the beginning of my remarks, the transition was much more orchestrated as a top-down approach. It was not so much grassroots – especially in the sense of neo-liberal policies.

While I don’t want to get into the nuances and specifics of the transition of the 1990s and early 2000s in Central Europe – I want to make the point that in our region, liberalism and neo-liberalism became somewhat synonymous. I also think it is important to note that my aim here is not to be critical, but to highlight the situation we faced at that time. There is no doubt that during the transformation, many people were negatively affected. In Poland there was the ‘shock therapy’ approach – from state-run monopolies to massive privatisation and free market mentality.

And that leads us back to my question – why have some Europeans started to see liberal democracy as a failed idea? In the post-communist states, liberal democracy has been blame for many of the ills of the transition. As Slovak scholar Samuel Abraham recently wrote in New Eastern Europe, many in our region saw liberal democracy as a way to open the doors to corruption, cynicism, greed and mass privatisation. Others argue that it has weakened the state and its public institutions, thus allowing crass politicians and economic oligarchs to exploit the state and to siphon away funds that could have been used to support social welfare and education. [5]

In Western Europe, a similar approach by certain segments of society can be seen. Neo-liberal policies and disciplined austerity has been blamed for the stagnate situation that affect those who are considered to be “left behind”.  There is no doubt that the European Union is in crisis and in fact faces many crises at the same time. The first major crisis broke out in 2008, with the global financial crisis. The EU was unable to quickly respond to it and it worsened in many places. Moreover, the reflex by EU leaders was to pursue austerity policies, some which are a continuance of neo-liberal policies. Many have criticised this approach which doesn’t allow states to borrow money to increase state spending and stimulate the economy. Instead, state budgets were cut further and state spending was limited. This has had different results in different states, but in many like Greece, Spain, and Portugal – there were serious social consequences. The stagnation and slow growth over the last almost ten years, has taken its toll on society.

Moreover, on top of the economic challenges, the EU is also facing a real identity crisis. The migration crisis is one component of this. The United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union – the so-called Brexit – is another element of this identity crisis. Growing Euroscepticism is now seen across the EU, from France, the Netherlands, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia and even Germany. On top of this – Donald Trump’s election victory adds even greater tension to the situation. Trump supported the Brexit decision and many of his advisers are very critical of the European Union as a project.

So what does this all mean? Should the EU seek an alternative to liberal democracy? Is there an alternative? Fukuyama noted in 2012, which I mentioned earlier, there is no perceived alternative to liberal democracy. Nevertheless, more and more “Western” politicians are now seeking such an alternative.

Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orban, believes that he can put his country on the road to an alternative – one that he calls an illiberal democracy –as Orban stated in 2014, it “is a non-liberal state.” Orban says that Hungary “does not deny foundational values of liberalism, as freedom, etc. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization, but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead.” [6]  He added that he believed that it was important to look at those states which are not Western as examples of successful nations – citing China, Turkey and Russia. Orban’s idea of illiberal democracy is confusing. He argues that it can fit as an EU member state, but then looks at authoritarian states like Turkey, China and Russia – as examples.

Another growing trend in Europe is a return to the nationalist state – one that gives powers back to the nation-states and takes them away from Brussels. Indeed, there are many disparities when looking at power structures between the EU’s core (Brussels) and its peripheries. These disparities obviously need to be addressed. However, we should be cautious when speaking about pursuing a nationalist state, or some form of national-democracy, similar to statist ideas presented in the early 20th century. The biggest critique of nationalism is that it is based on creating divisions. One nation in opposition to another, or others. Nationalism has always been present in some form in Europe, but forces us to ask the question – how can we have nationalism in a Europe based on values like unity, diversity, solidarity and to a lesser extent multi-culturalism. The migration crisis in Europe also caused a resurgence of nationalism or nationalistic feelings. The EU was unable to cope with the crisis (this is a topic for a whole other discussion) and put greater pressure on societies. And the open borders of the EU – free movement, another European value – caused even greater tensions not only with the influx of migrants from the Middle East, but also those migrating from Eastern parts of the EU to the Western parts – one of the main reasons for support of Brexit.

Hence, from this point of view the rise of populism poses a serious problem for Europe. There is no doubt that Europe is in turmoil right now and it is a critical time – especially when trying to understand European Values and which direction they will go. In some sense, these process are natural similar to the cyclical model as proposed by Arthur Schlesinger – where politics swing from one extreme to the other, with various periods of in-betweens. And we should find some comfort in that understanding.

III. Dangers of outside influence

But there is one more element to this process which has become very dangerous, and that is the role of outside influence, namely Russian propaganda. This of course, is an issue which Ukraine has become too familiar with – and it is an issue which the West is now trying to learn how to battle. But what the most troubling here is that Russia, in its form today under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, does not respect European Values. However, it masterfully EXPLOITS these European Values and uses them against Western societies. The most visible in this regard is how Russian propaganda uses Free Speech to manipulate and influence attitudes to become friendlier to the current Russian narrative.

In the West, Russian propaganda creates confusion and noise to the mainstream narrative, one which is usually based on facts. However, Russian propaganda is not concerned with the truth. And this is one of the key reasons why Russian propaganda is so successful in the West. In our post-modern societies, we believe that there are many perspectives and many sides to a story. In media and journalism, that means that we search for the truth amongst all the perspectives. As journalists we analyse and provide the various perspectives in order to reach the truth. The problem with this approach is that you cannot find truth where there is none.

What’s more, Russia does not need to create a network of supporters in the West, it just adds encouragement to populist groups which already have a track record of being anti-mainstream and anti-West. This includes groups like traditional allies of Russia in Europe such as the far left, but also new allies like the far right – such as France’s National Front, Hungary’s Jobbik, or even UKIP in the United Kingdom. These groups, known for their brash populism and anti-European attitudes, have become a vehicle for Russian messages.

Russia’s aim in this regard is to create chaos and instability. Because when there is chaos in the West, Russia will be freer to pursue other actions in its neighbourhood and further abroad. It also can justify its own repressive policies – showing to the Russian people how chaotic the West is – arguing that that the Western liberal democratic system is a failure, and the Putinist autocratic alternative is a success.

How do we combat this outside influence? This is a challenge that is added on top of all the other challenges we face today and which I outlined earlier. Many efforts our now being made, including by my own magazine – New Eastern Europe – to stand up against Russian-promoted disinformation and bring to the Western audience the narratives that reflect the truth in our region. At the same time, more support is being created for initiatives that identify and stop Russian propaganda and disinformation in the West. But these are just starting to be launched now. We are still way behind in this fight.

 IV. Looking for the positives – Where are we heading?

There is no doubt that we are facing challenging times when trying to understand European Values. The examples and context that I presented over the course of my remarks may sound negative. But I do believe that there is always room for hope. Whenever I meet young Ukrainians like you, and hear the stories about how they are building a European future for Ukraine, I am inspired. I am inspired by the dedication and commitment by young people who see Ukraine’s future in Europe – a Europe that is not so divided, as it is today. In fact, I believe a lot of young Europeans can learn a lot from you – about what it means to believe in Europe.

So despite these challenging times, I would like to close my remarks on a positive note with two thoughts. First, European Values are not something that come and go. It may happen that politics or politicians temporarily abandon them, but overall, the people do not. They may be frustrated and are seeking alternatives to the current status quo, but it does not mean that these values are being tossed away. In the end I believe that we will see a return to stronger European Values. And that is why it is so important that Ukraine, and Ukrainians do not abandon their beliefs in European Values. We must understand that there are forces that want to stop this process – as I mentioned earlier. Defeating these forces means embracing our common values, and adding a Ukrainian twist as well.

Secondly, related to the first, these values must be cultivated on the grassroots levels – first and foremost – and then demand that the leaders embrace and pursue policies in accordance to these values. No matter how much money is pumped from EU institutions and the Brussels bureaucracy; it will never have the same power as an organic, grassroots movement. This applies inside the European Union as well as outside – in countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. It also requires organic links between nations.

And I believe for this we need bridges. These bridges need to be built to show our common beliefs and values and also exchange our ideas about a common future. These bridges can also be used to fight manipulations which aim to divide. And that is the role I see by civil societies.

Our magazine, New Eastern Europe, which also a non-profit project – aims to be such a bridge. We give voice to the societies in our region and bring them to a wider audience – not only in Europe but even in places like Canada, the United States and even Australia.  These bridges need to create a better understanding of each other and when we better understand each other, we only strengthen our common links and build a community with a common future.

[1] For more on this please see Inglehart, R. et al. (2000) “World Values Surveys and European Values Surveys” http://faith-health.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/wvs.pdf.

[2] Francis Fukuyama (2012). “The Future of History. Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2012.

[3] Consolidated version of the Treaty on European Union, preamble. http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/en/TXT/?uri=CELEX:12012M/TXT

[4] AD Lavelle (2015) “Social Democracy or Neoliberalism? The Cases of Germany and Sweden”

[5] Abraham, Samuel (2017) “There is no alternative to liberal democracy”, New Eastern Europe 2/2017.

[6] Full text of Viktor Orbán’s speech at Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) of 26 July 2014 http://budapestbeacon.com/public-policy/full-text-of-viktor-orbans-speech-at-baile-tusnad-tusnadfurdo-of-26-july-2014/10592

*The material on understanding European values in challenging times was presented by Adam Reichardt at the panel  ‘European Values in Times of “Changing Modernity” during the Winter School “The Values of the United Europe and the Ukrainian Society: Problems of Correlation and Mechanisms of Transition” that was organized in Chernivtsi, February 21-25, 2017 with the support of thе Representation Office of Hanns Seidel Foundation in Ukraine
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