Author: Alexey Gromyko – 23/01/2019
Perceptions of the main challenges to the stability of the conventional state of the world are changing as rapidly as the events themselves. The political establishment in the United States still sets the tone in shaping these perceptions in the West, although the uniformity of the Euro-Atlantic region is withering away. An obvious example is the G7 summit in Quebec in June, which ended in fiasco with Donald Trump withdrawing his signature from the final communiqué. The refusal was accompanied by harsh criticism of Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, whom Trump accused of lying and undermining the agreements1 reached in La Malbaie.
Deconstruction of the West
The liberal part of the European political establishment continues to nourish hope that the current US behavior is temporary phenomenon, not a long-term trend. The increasing contradictions between the two shores of the Atlantic are most painful for orthodox atlantists, most vocal in the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, Sweden. As Britain withdraws from the EU, a number of European countries aspire for more United States in the Old continent. However, their desire is checked by a person who is supposed to symbolize the US – Donald Trump. So some of the America’s European acolytes are ready to bow their heads in acceptance even of this twist of history. Others view the neoliberal opposition to Trump as their mirror and wait for their return.
For European pragmatists represented by such countries as Germany and France, Spain and Belgium, the contradictions, accumulating with Washington, serve as a signal for more independent stance and for the transformation of the EU into an autonomous player on the international scene. Berlin and Paris, supported by Rome, are pursuing a proactive policy of developing the military-political instruments of the EU and strengthening the capacity of the national military-industrial complexes.
The third category of EU member states – Italy, Hungary, Greece, Slovakia, partly Bulgaria and the Czech Republic – countries with strong populist movements and eurosceptic sentiments, are gaining more influence. The prime minister of Hungary Viktor Orban, assuming the post for the fourth time last May, addressed the Parliament stating that the era of liberal democracy had come to an end and called for replacing it with 21st century Christian democracy2. The confrontation with ideological rivals plays into his hands. The decision of the Central European University, sponsored by Jorge Soros, to relocate from Budapest to Vienna became a symbol of this. If previously Orban was routinely portrayed by the liberal press as a political renegade and an outcast, now the flow of events in Europe shows that his personality, like many others, testifies to profound changes in the European thinking and reflects large-scale socio-economic changes. As a result, the established party political systems experienced a profound change.
In discourse on the liberal international order and New Populism, Britain is a special case. Its home-grown euroscepticism has gone much further than in Hungary, Greece or Italy. It not only brought eurosceptics to power, but also caused a political earthquake in the form of Brexit. However, the country’s political elite, in spite of all its connivance to populism and strategic miscalculation, continues to portray itself as a genuine pillar of the liberal international order. To make these mutually exclusive attitudes – the exit from the EU and leading positions in the Euro-Atlantic region, the British authorities have been engaged in incredible adventurism, including the so-called “Skripal case”.
Despite all the differences, thenature of populism in Britain is largely the same as in the US, Italy, France or Germany,namely, the protracted stagnation in the middle-class income and the increase of social inequality. For example, according to the British Trade Union Congress, after the 2008-2009 world economic crisis the average real wages of British workers remain lower than 10 years ago, and will not return to pre-crisis level until 20253.
New Populism has ceased to be a marginal phenomenon and has turned into a mainstream one. Euroscepticism, one of its currents, which until recently was an abusive term, now is an official policy of forces at the helm of power. The new prime minister of Italy Giuseppe Conte is at the head of the first Italian entirely populist government, formed by representatives of the Five Star Movement and the League. This government is unique in bringing together left and right populism, the genesis of which is very different, but the approaches to solving a number of transnational problems are similar. The concept of empire4 was once rehabilitated in the Western historical and political literature to the extent of the rhetoric of “benevolent empire”, especially in the US. At present the notion of “populism” is being rehabilitated as well. This is exactly what G. Conte stated in the Senate of the Italian Parliament on 5 June, indicating that the new government has nothing against being called populist in case it means respecting the views of the citizens.
Indeed, populism in the traditional meaning is the preserve of small parties and, consequently, of small groups of population. However, almost 50% of the citizens, who came to the polling stations at the election on 4 March, voted for the “Five Stars” and the League, which converted to a substantial majority of mandates in the parliament. In Italy and in a growing number of other European states, New Populism becomes the pool of opinions expressed by the majority or a significant part of the population. As a result, the former mainstream parties trade places with their opponents, thus becoming populist themselves and yielding mainstream ground to the new opinion formers.
Populism in the traditional meaning is a negative phenomenon, mapping the way for demagogues. On the contrary, many movements of New Populism contribute more to apprehension and resolution of modern crisis than the conventional ruling parties. For example, the emphasis on pragmatism in solving the problems of uncontrolled migration or improving relations with Russia appears to be more responsible and promising for stabilizing th situation in Europe, than the position of traditional centrist forces on these issues. Therefore, the arguments of those who accuse Russia of sympathizing with mainstream currents of New Populism allegedly with the aim to split up the EU, are not convincing. In fact, the reverse is true: Russia is at loggerheads with the British conservatives, who are main contributors to undermining European integration.
New Populism is often compared to and associated with the interwar years’ populism in the 20th century, which made it easier for the World War II to happen. Of course, there are ultraright parties in Europe, and some of them embrace neo-Nazi ideology. But they do not fall under the category of New Populism. Moreover, they continue to maintain their marginal character. The political heights are contended by those, for whom national identity, not nationalism is a means to overhaul the European project, to solve, not to aggravate the problems of democratic deficit, social inequalities, national and supranational bureaucracies, feebleness of the EU foreign policy. Majority of those, who represent New Populism, oppose the use of military force abroad, “humanitarian” and regime change interventions, while defenders of the “liberal international order” usually initiate or participate in application of hard power, from sanctions of different kinds to military force. The policies of conventional ruling parties, not those of the new populists, failed to prevent the migration crisis and in same cases have made it worse. As a result, we have the rise of xenophobic and racist attitudes in Europe.
Populism is a neutral phenomenon in the sense that the public frustration can be directed in different directions. Populism itself is neither negative, nor positive; it is a resource that may be used to implement either progressive or destructive political projects. The populism of British eurosceptics has dilapidated consequences, either visible or hidden, both for the European integration project, and for the international standing of Britain. At the same time, the populism of the “Five Stars”, The League or Viktor Orban is also a reaction to various dysfunctions, both at the national and the EU levels, but it does not go as far as the British eurosceptics. The dissatisfaction of the voters, whose aspirations are the prerequisite for the electoral success, can ultimately benefit the EU, forcing the conventional political parties either to adapt and metamorphose or to give way to new political forces.
The success or failure in this self-transformation or self-annihilation of political establishments will be determined by two more issues. Firstly, they will be judged by the ability to implement the EU Global Strategy, in particular, the thesis of strategic autonomy. The second issue is the normalization of relations with Russia and the revival of the concept of strategic partnership between the West and the East of Europe from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
There is one more group of countries – Finland, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland, whichadhere to different variations of neutrality. They have played an important role in the modern history of Europe as elements of checks and balances, which support peace in this versatile region. They have made a significant contribution to the de-escalation of various conflicts. The special role of neutrality was demonstrated during the visit of Vladimir Putin to Vienna in June, where the two countries signed an unprecedented agreement on the Russian gas supplies up to 2040. The federal chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Austrian president Alexander Van der Bellen made statements, which in effect run counter to the official policy of Washington and some of its allies towards Russia.
However,Helsinki, and especially Stockholm have become a weak link in European neutrality. The sustained efforts of the USA to draw Finland and Sweden into NATO, if not de jure, then de facto, are by no means accidental. The next step in this direction was the signing on 8 May in Washington of a trilateral declaration on expanding military cooperation between the United States, Sweden and Finland. Prior to this, in 2016, both North European countries had already concluded similar bilateral agreements with the United States.
The Euro-Atlantic solidarity is cracking at the seams. That makes the member states of the EU and its supranational structures review their strategic priorities and prepare backstop options. One of them was expressed in a statement in favor of normalizing relations with Russia, made by Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, at the conference “Re-energizing Europe – Now!” on 31 May. The conference was the concluding event of a major project, involving a number of leading European think tanks5. Growing geopolitical solitude of the EU is pushing the national capitals and Brussels towards revival of the imperative of the pan-European security system and common economic and humanitarian space from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
The dreams of the orthodox atlantists for preserving the “liberal international order” led bythe United States of the pre-Trump period are becoming ever more intangible. It is difficult to give more convincing evidence of its malaise than the recognition of Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, who calls himself “an incurable pro American European fanatically devoted to the idea of trans-Atlantic cooperation”
- On the eve of the G7 summit in Canada,he was deliberating whether the new policy of the White House was merely seasonal or asymptom of the breakup of the Western political community7. Shortly before the EU – Western Balkans summit in May, Tusk said that the EU should be grateful to president Trump, “because thanks to him we have got rid of all illusions”8. And, it should be kept in mind that Tusk is a Pole. “Euronews”, the leading news channel of the EU, echoing such sentiments, called the Canadian G7 summit a symbol of the Western world split9. A new term, “G6 plus one”, was coined, reflecting the further erosion of the club’s influence following thereduction of its membership after suspension of Russia’s membership.
The relationship between the US and its allies in Europe increasingly resembles the transactional type of interaction, a notion from the world of finance that means a concrete one-time deal. Until recently it was broadly used in the West to characterize the relations with Russia since 2014. In other words, it is a targeted cooperation on agreements, which the West is interested to strike with Russia, for example, the settlement of the Syrian and Ukrainian crises, the salvation of the Iran nuclear deal, some elements of the fight against international terrorism. This type of relationship was officially embodied in the “five guiding principles for EU-Russia relations”, adopted by the Council of the EU in March 2016. These days, the cooperation between the leader of the Western world with its other representatives is becoming transactional as well.
Trump’s way of thinking represents the strategy of a business manager, who primarily is interested in the profitability of the enterprise. To be more precise, that is a type of a profitability associated with the principles of shareholders’ economy (the interests of a narrow group of people focused on short-term benefits) in contrast with stakeholders’ economy. The shareholders for Trump the President is his electorate and the interests of Trump’s opponents and other members of the Western community become irrelevant. Trump offers a type of a business model, which envisages taking into account as much interests of the US allies as is acceptable for the America’s national interests, interpreted through a prism of Trump’s election promises. And most of them are interpreted in a narrow economy-centered context.
The political landscape of Europe is undergoing profound change. The drama of Brexit, theUS withdrawal from the climate accord and Iran nuclear deal, the fiasco of the G7 summit in Quebec, the trade war between the US and the EU, a new populist government, this time in Italy, the Catalan and Scottish separatisms, the EU internal quarrels on migration, the success of “Nord Stream 2” are symptoms of deep shifts in international relations. In general, the ongoing events confirm the emergence of the polycentric model of global governance. They also point to growing awareness in the EU of the need of strategic autonomy. The Russian foreign policy acquires more space for maneuvering in different geopolitical directions.
(reproduced by kind permission of the Author – source: The Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences)
Alexey Gromyko, Director of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IE RAS), RAS Corresponding Member, RIAC member
This article is published within the Platform Europe Project