The illusions of change

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The recent events unfolding before our eyes are showing, more than we can immediately understand, that political change acts in unknown ways and has its own timetable. Let us take, for instance, the wave of immigrants from the South, which unexpectedly came crashing down on Europe in the summer-autumn of 2015, which was ended only in the spring of the following year, through an agreement with Turkey (agreement that still holds, albeit with some shortcomings). The short-term consequences of this event were immediately read and treated as such at European level. The allocation of immigrant quotas for all European Union member states in order to ease the pressure on those toward which they headed as a priority – something that was done not without certain hardships, considering the opposition of some of the member states –, the setting up of EU border control mechanisms in order to manage potentially new flows etc. But the medium- and long-term consequences are only now starting to show their real dimensions. We are not talking solely about the just-on-the-line result of the Brexit referendum of June 2016, in which British voters were strongly fuelled by the topic of immigration and its impact on the future of the UK. But the recent electoral results registered in Germany and Austria come to attest that the topic of immigration has become a massive one in the orientation of European voters, further to the benefit of right-wing nationalist-populists, and its action seems to be only beginning. Anti-EU currents are consolidating in Europe following these elections in which the topic if immigration has brought into parliaments political parties with an accentuated anti-European profile/platform, and the ruling coalitions, whose forming is still pending, may bring other surprises (the great surprise being that mainstream, pro-European parties lost massively at the polls). After the recent legislative elections in the Czech Republic, Carnegie Europe’s Judy Dempsey wrote that at the heart of Europe, within the four members states of the Visegrad Group, an anti-EU current is growing, and the result of the Austrian legislative elections seems to confirm this orientation: “If anything, the Visegrád Group of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have recently focused on opposing refugee quotas instead of working together to think and act strategically about the direction of the EU.”

Undoubtedly, the political change of a strategic type is grounded on public opinion orientations that formed in time and that show their force in legislative or presidential elections that take place periodically within EU member states, especially in those with great continental clout. If this is the paradigm of democratic evolution and instrumentalisation of political change, then, apart from this example of the link between the immigration phenomenon and the consolidation of the anti-EU current in Europe, there is another example, even more significant and which concerns the state of the current liberal international order. As can be easily seen, up until recently the West acted unitarily and knew how to maintain and consolidate the liberal international order formed at the end of the Second World War. The mainstay institutions of this liberal order – from the UN to G-7 and from the World Trade Organisation to UNESCO, from the Paris climate agreement (2015) to the nuclear agreement with Iran (July 2015) – functioned so as to outline not only the West’s unity of action but also systemic security and viability. The strength and span of these institutions not only ensured the decades-long survival of this systemic order – including its overcoming of the Cold War period of confrontation – but also triggered developments of unprecedented dynamism, such as globalisation, economic development – spectacular in the case of certain states – and the appearance of the group of emerging powers, not to mention decolonisation or the spread of democracy at global echelon. The aforementioned Judy Dempsey is also sceptical in what concerns the current situation, exclaiming in an article several days ago: “The West is in big trouble,” also specifying the symptom that prompts her to think that: the multilateral institutions established after 1945, which created the current liberal order and which offer durability to the transatlantic relationship, are in crisis. Dempsey lists several groups of European leaders who are shaping up in the current circumstances. One would be the group which assesses, against the backdrop of U.S. President D. Trump’s actions – the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, from UNESCO, his harsh criticism of the nuclear agreement with Iran, his support for Brexit –, that the West’s post-1945 era has entered a decline. And the transatlantic relationship with it. Hence, Europe must find her own path. Another group, fairly vocal and influential from the standpoint of political positions, “hold onto the idea that the EU can flourish on its own without the United States, forgetting the fact that America’s support for the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor to the European Union, was critical.” This group considers that the EU can build its own army, and can take upon itself also the mission to ensure the security and defence of the continent, the member states pooling their resources for this purpose. Similarly, there is the group of leaders – “from Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of Poland’s governing nationalist-conservative party, to Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s opportunistic and populist prime minister – who believe they can carve out a special kind of national sovereignty that is bankrolled by the EU’s structural funds, which have helped so enormously to modernize the infrastructure of these countries. They also believe they are not obliged to provide protection to refugees.”

Such groups have taken shape against the backdrop of the EU’s “strategic helplessness,” visible in what concerns both the Western Balkans and Ukraine, all linked to “the illusion that Europe can go it alone.” The possibility that these orientations may gain massive traction, and thus “the liberal transatlantic West that grew out of the destruction of World War II will become oblivious,” is not ruled out. The title of Dempsey’s analysis says everything about her position: “Europe’s Illusionaries.”