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Can Europe Help Redesign Democracy in a Post-COVID-19 World?

Cracks in democratic institutions are widening all over the globe. Both in Europe and abroad, politics on both sides of the compass are not helping to prevent polarisation – especially in this era of rapid change. As 2020 judders into its last quarter, it’s perhaps a good time to consider how next year will unravel. In this think piece, David Tirr takes a look at what Europe can do to stem the tide of political degradation.

David Tirr

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What a year 2020 is turning out to be. Even if there had been no Covid-19, climate-related disasters such as the wildfires in the US and Australia, the melting ice caps and the destruction of the rain forests in Brazil and South East Asia (and as I write, the hurricane season is only just getting underway) are showing us that we are closer than ever to turning a corner. This year has also registered exceptional levels of political and social unrest. At the same time we are witnessing President Trump’s continuing war on multilateralism as well as his rhetoric against constitutional checks and balances, a heightened confrontation between the US and China, and potential conflict between the US and Iran, between China and India, and between the West and a Russia which is apparently happy to be seen publicly murdering its political opponents. The forthcoming US election is fraught with the threat of violence.

This has been a year of protest. Hardly ever have we seen so many demonstrations – yet there seem to be as many different causes as there are demonstrators. Racism. The environment. Anti-austerity. Pro-democracy. Womens’ rights. Not forgetting Covid-19 deniers and those who are viscerally opposed to vaccination – this in a plague year. It seems that the only common element is a huge upsurge in popular frustration. In some areas, like the Black Lives Matter movement, the Hong Kong protests or the demonstrations in Belarus, the reasons for demonstrating are all too clear. But the overwhelming impression is of cacophony, a lot of fake news, and drift towards…what, exactly?

Right wing ideology, left wing causes

Worldwide, the signs are that the political gulf between right wingers and an inchoate and disorganised left will deepen, with the “liberal” internationalists, the defenders of the status quo, standing uneasily between the two.

In the case of the right wing, their task has been facilitated by the near collapse of traditional social democracy in its homeland, Europe, and by the consequences of austerity policies.

More than anyone it is Donald Trump who has given form to nativist aspirations. For his base this is not really a question of party, but of political and cultural ideology.

Mr Trump’s ideology harkens back to the proto-fascist “America Firsters”1America First refers to a foreign policy stance in the United States that generally emphasizes isolationism. It first gained prominence in the interwar period (1918–1939) and was advocated by the America First Committee, a non-interventionist pressure group against the U.S. entry into World War II. Since 2016, an identically-named campaign slogan and foreign policy that emphasises withdrawal from international treaties and organizations has been pursued by the administration of US President Donald Trump. of the 1930s rather than to standard, free trade Conservatism.  His reinvention of the Republican Party has been an important signal to right wing activists in Europe and Latin America. That political and cultural shift and its global ramifications will constitute Mr Trump’s legacy.

The left, on the other hand, does not yet have a set of common values which can counter what would only a few years ago have been considered extreme.

Certainly, “woke” activists have sought to draw attention to injustice, but their intolerance has left them without political roots, fundamentally a political tribe like any other.

Single issue politics has monopolised attention on the left, be it climate, institutional racism, or women’s rights. The effect has been to undermine alternatives to rightist political ideologies. In Northern Europe and to some extent the US, green or ‘Ecolo’2‘Ecolo’ is the term used by Francophone political parties pursuing a pro-environment agenda. politics have flourished even as social democracy withers on the vine.  

So what we see is a left which dissipates its energies, and which lacks relevance to many voters, a new radical right with disturbing echoes of the past, and a centre ground which has increasingly been sucked towards the right.

Case in Point: the UK

Nowhere is this more the case than in Europe and, in particular, in Brexit Britain. The UK Conservative Party were in 2015 effectively the centre right party bequeathed by Margaret Thatcher. A year later, a radicalised Conservative right was borrowing the clothes of the UK Independence Party, an anti-European, essentially English nationalist party. The right-wing of the party succeeded beyond their expectations, winning the referendum on EU membership, forcing out the centrist elements which had dominated their party ever since Macmillan, eliminating the threat from UKIP and defeating an out of touch Labour Party in a landslide election.

But in the real world the price will prove to be far too high. The present UK government dominates parliament but has a sick economy, no policies and very few competent ministers. All the ideas which Conservative leaders had espoused since the War – Macmillan and Heath’s internationalism3The political recognition that international cooperation is essential not only to handle global issues but to promote national interest., Thatcher’s support for business, balanced books, low tax and low spending, Major, Cameron and May’s readiness to compromise in the national interest – were being buried by the Johnson government even before Covid-19.

All that remains now is Brexit.  At a time when international trade is being seriously damaged by Covid-19 and  US protectionism, it is a world first that a trade-dependent country should be so determined to cut itself free from its home trading bloc. The UK government now faces the end of the transitional period agreed with the EU with no real idea on what follows next.

However, Scottish parliamentary elections are due to be held in May with independence again on the agenda. It would be difficult for Boris Johnson to ignore a landslide vote for the Scottish National Party. Yet the risks of pursuing a  policy based entirely on “regaining” national sovereignty have been clear for years: if Scotland follows suit (and, subsequently, perhaps also Northern Ireland) England and Wales would  be back to their medieval borders, just as the demise of the USSR left Russia as it had been before Peter the Great. The loss of prestige would be immense and would leave the rump UK isolated internationally. That may in turn spell the end of the Conservative and Unionist party, as Irish independence ultimately put paid to the old Liberals as a major political force in the 1920s.

What can we expect from politics in 2021 and beyond?

Worldwide, 2021 will be bringing us a lot more than Brexit, whatever form that takes (four years after the referendum we are still no wiser about that). If Scotland votes to leave the UK there will be important repercussions in the EU, not least in Spain and Belgium, the two other countries with major regional independence movements. Then there is the likelihood that we shall see more of what appears to be the new norm – more extreme weather, more natural disasters, more disease, and more illegal immigration. Other ongoing expressions of popular frustration may continue to grow, sharpened by the economic consequences of Covid-19.

We can also expect some pre-Covid-19 chickens to come home to roost. During the years of ultra-low interest rates investors worldwide have been engaged in a desperate search for yield. A lot of this money has gone not into revamping public services left underfunded after years of austerity, but into high quality bonds and equities – some of which appear to be grossly overvalued – but also into plenty of cheaper and not so high quality assets. A lot of these will have been bad investments and many businesses will go under, if they have not done so already. The pop of bubbles bursting is likely to be among the frequently heard sounds of 2021. Meanwhile governments will be besieged by economists warning that the fragile recovery would be seriously endangered by tax rises, while politicians are well aware that a return to austerity at this time is out of the question. So public debt will continue to expand exponentially. The general view is that deflation is a far greater concern than inflation. But is it really “safe” to borrow unimaginable sums of money? (N.B. it took Britain until 2006 to pay off its wartime debts to the US and Canada alone). There can be only one way out: for central banks to print money, as they have not done since WWII. But knowing the history of the 1920s, will that not inevitably lead to inflation? And is it really so unlikely that prices will be unaffected by broken supply chains due to both Covid-19 and protectionist policies?

A year – or possibly several years – of recession would have even more important political ramifications than the 2008-10 financial crisis. That led to austerity and to a boom in illegal immigration in Europe and North America, and ultimately to the rise of the right. We may expect more of the same, as trade conflict between US and China and Brexit could exacerbate the fallout from Covid-19.

I suspect that in Europe a number of other conservative governments will follow England’s lead in borrowing the clothes of right wing parties, as indeed a number have already done; that process will speed up with the departure, from the stage, of major centrist figures like Angela Merkel.

For the longer term, the surge in unemployment and the incessant calls by pressure groups for more social justice cannot be fobbed off by appealing to people’s innate tribalism. Can the left and centre reinvent themselves in the wake of Covid-19, just as the right did 10 years ago? If so, how?

Three pointers for the future

1. It is much better understood now than it was in January 2020 that austerity seriously damaged the fabric of society in the form of underfunded and overcentralised public services, services which Covid-19 has shown are not fit for purpose in times of crisis4 European health services were mostly underprepared for a Coronavirus pandemic. Mixed messages from central governments, inadequate administration and sheer shortages of everything from staff to protective equipment led to thousands of deaths. The question “why is a nurse not paid more than a hedge fund manager?” will become even more pertinent. A reinvented left could advocate far-going reform of taxation and pensions to reflect how much it would cost to keep society running, rather than paying people as much as could be afforded within envelopes set by finance ministries with a view to  “sound finances”. In a Covid-19 world, this approach quickly becomes somewhat outdated. A reassessment of the entire public sector could start with the assumption that those who face the greatest risks and perform the most vital tasks should reap the greatest rewards. In order to acquire public ownership and avoid industrial strife, the results should be endorsed by the electorate.

2. We are beginning to grasp that the centralised nation-state is too far above ordinary people to manage their affairs efficiently (except perhaps for very small countries, of which several are full members of the EU) yet too small to address global issues like pandemics, climate change and marine pollution. It is also more prone to “state capture” by vested interests. The state should delegate upwards to international bodies, instead of disempowering them as the right is doing, while simultaneously delegating downwards so that people in their own towns and rural areas can “take back control” where it counts. Thus in Europe, the larger centralised states might move towards a system whereby – as an example – multilateral bodies (presumably in the context of the EU) take over some traditional tasks from the national executives, such as defence and security, disease control, environmental protection and migration; while the lion’s share of taxation is spent locally, with local authorities gradually taking on full responsibility for health, education, social security and local policing. National authorities would still, where appropriate, operate nation-wide infrastructures, set standards, carry out regular auditing and provide expertise, as well as acting as a clearing house to redeploy surplus resources to where they are most needed.

3. Thirdly, democratic institutions and the rule of law need urgent protection. They are under threat in a number of countries. Their constitutions may need amending (or in the UK’s case, to be committed to paper) to make checks and balances and institutional freedoms explicit. They should, inter alia, explicitly spell out the separation of powers, in particular the independence of the judiciary, national and local parliaments and audit bodies; ensure that the media are free from pressure brought by the executive, but also that they act responsibly by reinforcing, rather than challenging, constitutional rights; and update rules outlawing discrimination and defamation. The rights and privileges of the individual as well as his/her obligations as a member of society should lie at the basis of such an initiative.

The institutions of the democratic state will change, whether we like it or not. The major challenge for the West will be to retain and enhance the progress we have made in the seventy five years since World War II. How wrong we were, twenty years ago, to imagine that our economic model would inevitably lead to the democratisation of Russia and China, if only they could be absorbed into the global trading system. The opposite has been the case, so far. But neither Trump’s America, nor Russia’s murderous mafiocracy, nor national socialist China can offer the world a model for a more peaceful, more prosperous, and more respectful future. That will be for others to do.

David Tirr

An Englishman whose forebears came from the continent, David Tirr lives in Belgium and is married to an Italian. He considers himself a quintessential European. A British and then European civil servant for most of his working life, he believes that the EU’s common legal basis and closely integrated economy offer the best model to safeguard democratic governance and the advances in human rights which have been achieved since the second world war, at a time of resurgent nativism and right wing political movements which instrumentalise it. David Tirr is the author of the 2014 novel “A Short History of England 2020-2089” which foreshadows some of the issues raised in this think piece.