Sur­viv­ing the Storm: Liberal Democ­racy in Times of Change

Attri­bu­tion — Non Com­meri­cial — No Derivs Cre­ative Commons © Euro­pean Union 2012 — Euro­pean Par­lia­ment —————————————- Pietro Naj-Oleari: Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, Infor­ma­tion General Direc­toratem, Web Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Unit, Picture Editor. Phone: +32479721559/+32.2.28 40 633 E-mail: pietro.naj-oleari@europarl.europa.eu

Society is caught up in a whirl­wind of change. The power of liberal democ­ra­cies is dwin­dling and the polit­i­cal balance in the world is shift­ing. An inter­view with Ralf Fücks on what to expect from the renewed grand coali­tion in Germany, and how to defend liberal democ­racy in times of anti-liberal revolt.

Rod­er­ick Kef­fer­pütz: The Euro­pean polit­i­cal land­scape is chang­ing. Macron’s elec­tion victory, the cre­ation of a right-wing coali­tion in Austria, anti-liberal ten­den­cies in Poland and Hungary, and the outcome of the Italian elec­tions all point to growing divi­sions within the EU. Against this back­drop, what’s your view on the renewal of the grand coali­tion in Berlin?

Ralf Fücks: At first glance, this is a sign of sta­bil­ity and con­ti­nu­ity after months of polit­i­cal ner­vous­ness in Germany. I am not overly con­fi­dent, however, about the polit­i­cal capac­ity of this coali­tion. The Social Democ­rats have taken a bat­ter­ing and will try to dis­tin­guish them­selves from the Chris­t­ian Democ­rats. But the Chris­t­ian Demo­c­ra­tic Union, Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel’s party and the bigger of Germany’s two allied centre-right parties, doesn’t really know what it stands for. While there is talk of a fresh start in Euro­pean policy and of the chal­lenges posed by dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion, the coali­tion agree­ment is more of a ‘lowest common denom­i­na­tor’ doc­u­ment. We shouldn’t expect any great polit­i­cal ini­tia­tives from Berlin, although this is urgently needed.

Since your last inter­view in the Green Euro­pean Journal, you have both pub­lished a new book, Frei­heit vertei­di­gen (Defend­ing Freedom) and founded the think tank Zentrum Lib­erale Moderne (LibMod). What was the moti­va­tion behind these two ini­tia­tives?

Liberal democ­ra­cies are faced with a double chal­lenge. An exter­nal chal­lenge comes from the actions of assertive powers such as Russia, China, Iran, and even Turkey, which no longer see them­selves as soci­eties in tran­si­tion from an author­i­tar­ian past to a demo­c­ra­tic future, but as a counter-model to the West. The concept of author­i­tar­ian mod­erni­sa­tion is being put forward with con­fi­dence and brings us back to global sys­temic rivalry between author­i­tar­ian and demo­c­ra­tic soci­eties.

The defence of liberal democ­racy has become the key issue of our time.

At the same time, there’s the enemy within. An anti-liberal counter-move­ment is spread­ing through Europe and the USA, affect­ing the core coun­tries of the West. Trump, Brexit, and the increas­ing strength of right-wing pop­ulist to right-wing extrem­ist move­ments are expres­sions of this. The defence of liberal democ­racy has become the key issue of our time. It is not about pre­serv­ing the status quo: defence means renewal.

What are the reasons behind this anti-liberal revolt?

We are expe­ri­enc­ing a crisis of mod­erni­sa­tion. Fun­da­men­tal changes are taking place at an espe­cially rapid pace: eco­nomic glob­al­i­sa­tion with mount­ing per­for­mance pres­sure; the digital rev­o­lu­tion with its massive changes for the working and living envi­ron­ment; global migra­tion accom­pa­nied by cul­tural and social con­flicts; and even the change in gender rela­tions, the polit­i­cal dimen­sion of which we under­es­ti­mate.

These changes have created a basic sense of inse­cu­rity in much of our society. The impres­sion that pros­per­ity and secu­rity have become pre­car­i­ous has been aggra­vated by three highly sym­bolic events: 9/​11, the attack on the World Trade Center in New York; the finan­cial crisis of 2008, which still has not been resolved; and the great refugee move­ment of 2015–2016. All three have strength­ened the basic sense of losing control.

It’s not that people are dra­mat­i­cally worse off than they were in the past. This is indeed the case for sec­tions of the working class, but not in Germany. It’s about a neg­a­tive antic­i­pa­tion of the future – looking to the future with fear as opposed to con­fi­dence.

What guiding prin­ci­ple can give con­fi­dence in these trou­bled times? In author­i­tar­ian states, as in anti-liberal move­ments, this role is played by nation­al­ism. Free, liberal soci­eties are char­ac­terised by a high degree of indi­vid­u­al­i­sa­tion and thus frag­men­ta­tion. What is the uni­fy­ing element in liberal soci­eties that can offer this type of con­fi­dence?

This is a famil­iar refrain in the debate on moder­nity. German philoso­pher and soci­ol­o­gist Helmuth Pless­ner iden­ti­fied this basic con­flict in his 1924 book Grenzen der Gemein­schaft. Eine Kritik des sozialen Radikalis­mus (The Limits of Com­mu­nity: A Cri­tique of Social Rad­i­cal­ism). He describes the con­flict between a liberal society with pro­gres­sive indi­vid­u­al­i­sa­tion, increas­ing cul­tural diver­sity and the dis­so­lu­tion of all tra­di­tional ties, and radical com­mu­nity move­ments from the left and the right in the form of com­mu­nism and a rad­i­calised ethnic nation­al­ism. The ‘Volks­ge­mein­schaft’ (ethnic com­mu­nity) is the alter­na­tive to the liberal-indi­vid­u­al­is­tic society.

Human beings need con­nec­tion, the feeling of not being left alone in the storms of change that are raging around us

We can only defend the basic ideas of lib­er­al­ism – indi­vid­ual freedom, plu­ral­ism, cul­tural diver­sity and cos­mopoli­tanism – if we find answers to the basic need for secu­rity, com­mu­nity, and belong­ing. Human beings need con­nec­tion, the feeling of not being left alone in the storms of change that are raging around us – we have to take that seri­ously!

The crucial ques­tion then is how to define cohe­sion, and how to do this in a non-exclu­sive way: not ethnic, like the Volks­ge­mein­schaft, or reli­gious, like Islamism; not as class sol­i­dar­ity, as in com­mu­nism, but rather in a repub­li­can sense. A polit­i­cal com­mu­nity of free cit­i­zens who share common values and beliefs and stand in sol­i­dar­ity with one another, that is the answer.

Has the post­mod­ern Left not pursued its own iden­tity pol­i­tics instead of strength­en­ing such a sense of repub­li­can com­mon­al­ity?

The Left’s iden­tity pol­i­tics was a trap. The politi­ci­sa­tion of iden­tity issues such as gender and ethnic, cul­tural or reli­gious affil­i­a­tion con­tributed to this pop­ulist counter-attack. We now have a white major­ity society which is reclaim­ing and defend­ing its iden­tity. There­fore, rather than deriv­ing pol­i­tics from group iden­ti­ties, we now need to focus on a repub­li­can under­stand­ing of democ­racy with equal rights and equal oppor­tu­ni­ties for all.

In Germany, the term ‘Heimat’ (‘Home­land’, a place of belong­ing) is dis­cussed in this context, and the federal gov­ern­ment plans to estab­lish a ‘home­land min­istry’. Is that the answer?

The grand coali­tion has already grasped that in times such as these, in which bound­aries are being eroded, there is a need for belong­ing and attach­ment. But of course you can’t meet that need with a home­land min­istry. As out­go­ing German Inte­rior Min­is­ter de Maiz­ière cor­rectly empha­sised, home isn’t a state respon­si­bil­ity; it belongs in the sphere of civil society.

Nev­er­the­less, it’s right to chal­lenge the right-wing pop­ulists over the concept of home­land. But in order to do so, you have to spell out alter­na­tive def­i­n­i­tions. My home is a place where I am recog­nised and respected. It needs to be open to new­com­ers who want to shape their lives in com­mu­nity with others.

What is the role of the Euro­pean Union when it comes to home­land?

I believe that for younger people, the Erasmus gen­er­a­tion, Europe is already part of their self-image. We never have just one iden­tity, but are at the same time Euro­pean, German, French or Italian, with our whole history, culture, and lan­guage. We also come from par­tic­u­lar regions with their own land­scapes, his­to­ries, and dialects. These are mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties with many pos­si­ble points of con­nec­tiv­ity. Europe gives us another layer of polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tion.

But Europe can feel a long way away, and this perhaps rein­forces the impres­sion of losing control.

This is pri­mar­ily the case when Europe is described as a central state. Then the back­lash is trig­gered. The Euro­pean central state is an elite project. The edu­ca­tional and eco­nomic elites can move won­der­fully within such a post-national Europe, but the major­ity of the pop­u­la­tion feels that the dis­so­lu­tion of nation states takes away oppor­tu­ni­ties for par­tic­i­pa­tion. Pol­i­tics moves further away from them; it becomes even more anony­mous and bureau­cratic.

We have to get away from the false dichotomy of a Europe of nation states or the United States of Europe.

That’s why we need to rethink Europe. We have to get away from the false dichotomy of a Europe of nation states or the United States of Europe. Europe must be thought of much more as a polit­i­cal network, with common nor­ma­tive foun­da­tions and insti­tu­tions. More Europe does not always mean a greater lev­el­ling of dif­fer­ences, but unity in diver­sity.

Does the grand coalition’s new coali­tion agree­ment provide the answer to these fun­da­men­tal changes and chal­lenges?

There’s no need to tear it up out of hand; it does all sorts of things right. But if you read the fine print, then you realise that it’s based upon the status quo. The grand coali­tion is trying to somehow get a handle on the various prob­lems by throw­ing money around. There’s not a lot of ‘future’ in the agree­ment.

For example, there are no struc­tural reforms in fun­da­men­tal fields such as pen­sions, health­care, or the green renewal of the economy. This is one of the biggest dis­ap­point­ments for me. The idea that ecology is an oppor­tu­nity for indus­trial mod­erni­sa­tion and eco­nomic via­bil­ity has com­pletely dropped off the agenda. We have regressed to where we were ten years ago. At present, the Greens are the only party in the German federal polit­i­cal land­scape that even comes close to having such a future-ori­ented dis­cus­sion.

And what about foreign policy? As you have already men­tioned, attacks from outside – from coun­tries such as Russia – also pose a real chal­lenge to liberal democ­ra­cies.

The foreign policy section of the coali­tion agree­ment is a refusal to face up to reality. There is little ref­er­ence to the geopo­lit­i­cal chal­lenges facing the Euro­pean Union today. Basi­cally, it’s still the old idea that all con­flicts can be solved with money and the right words. It doesn’t face up to the con­flict with author­i­tar­ian powers such as Russia, while the ques­tion of deal­ings with China is given little serious con­sid­er­a­tion. It lacks both self-con­fi­dence and an aware­ness of the Euro­pean Union’s own power. Europe mustn’t only take care of eco­nomic rela­tions and devel­op­ment aid; it also needs to think about secu­rity policy in the clas­si­cal sense. This includes acting as an insti­tu­tion that is con­scious of its own power. We are still quite a long way from that.

We had out­sourced the con­fi­dent, power-con­scious role to the Amer­i­cans, but they are now with­draw­ing from that.

This schiz­o­phre­nia has always been there. On the one hand we were happy about the Amer­i­cans with their hard power, and at the same time we crit­i­cised them for mil­i­tarism. However, this divi­sion into hard and soft power is also visible in Europe. Up to now, France and the United Kingdom have been respon­si­ble for hard power. Germany doesn’t feel that its respon­si­bil­ity lies there, which is why we also have an army that is not oper­a­tional. The German sub­ma­rine fleet, for example, is made up of six sub­marines: not a single one is oper­a­tional. The same applies to the Air Force.

In this context, we must also raise the ques­tion of the Euro­peani­sa­tion of defence. Common Euro­pean defence is a real goal, but it should not be an excuse. We like to talk about the Euro­peani­sa­tion of defence to avoid dis­cussing Germany’s own secu­rity respon­si­bil­ity.


On 27 March 2018, this inter­view was pub­lished at the Euro­pean Green Journal in German and English.

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