Author: Dr. Vesna Pusić
Sociologist and politician
Former Deputy Prime Minister of Croatia
Democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law are at the heart of the European project. Those are the common values that have been the very core under which the European Union is constructed and have been the foundation of the projection of the European soft power and influence in the world. However, the rise of populism in Europe, is putting those values at risk – and this has clear consequences for the EU’s common security policy and its capacity to act in international affairs.
To begin with I want to state two things that frame my later argument.
First, I am a convinced, passionate European, an EU European. So, my criticism of the EU foreign and security policy, or the very lack of it, comes from a position of a true believer rather than from Euroscepticism.
Second, Europe’s (EU) security and foreign policy and its position on these two crucial issues have gone through tectonic changes in the last four years. The transatlantic partnership between Europe and the US, the self-understood, close political and military alliance that stood strong and increasingly stronger since the World War Two, is no more. Or at least it is no more in the form in which it existed until four years ago. At times the relationship has taken a turn of discontent, distrust and even deception. Of course, there are a lot of things that connect the EU and the US on all different levels, from close people-to-people relations, over the adherence to the shared liberal democratic values based upon democracy, rule of law, human rights and individual freedoms, all the way to the military alliances. But the unquestionable mutual trust and Europe’s belief that when it comes to security America has got its back, that is gone. It is difficult to imagine how that could ever be restored. Trump presidency has proven that it can change and disappear overnight. Europe has not yet adjusted to it, but it has understood. It needs to rethink its security and it needs develop strategic autonomy. This comes at a time when the EU itself is facing an internal split, the kind it has never experienced before – a conflict of values, a struggle between populists and liberal democrats.
It would take a profound and deep analysis how did it happen that populism has gained so much ground both globally and in Europe. What is apparent is that populist regimes have been given a whole spectrum of names: from flawed democracy, to illiberal democracy and authoritarianism, all the way to despotism (J. Kean)1. This is to say that populism is a diverse political movement, but here I would like to focus more on the fact that populists don’t believe in rule of law, but in rule by law. What they all have in common is (1) reducing rights of some, or even all citizens, (2) gaining some and often substantial support from the general public in their respective countries, (3) stumping out democratic institutions, especially political accountability and (4) having an opportunistic, “valueless” approach in choosing allies and forming alliances. Populists have mastered or are in the process of mastering the art of winning elections. They have managed to convince the general public that elections equal democracy. More precisely, that whoever wins the elections has the right to do whatever he wants.
Populists can be often heard confronting knowledge, expertise, facts, truth, accountability, responsibility, civility, political equality i.e. everything necessary for a functioning liberal democracy. In their style they are often seen by the crowds as much more attractive than public figures giving “boring” sermons on the rule of law, due process, separation of powers, equal rights, etc.
Since the paramount objective of populist politicians is staying in power, they are prepared to say anything and do everything to achieve that objective. Very often the power helps them staying out of jail for the endemic corruption they have cultivated. Europe became today a “mixed bag” when it comes to populist or populist-supported governments, and in many European countries the mainstream parties often accommodate their political narratives to the pressures from the populists. In turn, that created the greatest threat to European unity, through that to European security and consequently to the very existence of the EU.
The consequences on the European security are more than noticeable. The recent examples, some of which are mentioned further, where EU failed to demonstrate unity in its foreign affairs policy are alarming.
For a decade now, at its doorstep, Europe witnesses a horrible war in Syria. The US President Obama’s administration clearly said that it expected the EU to play a central, active role in stopping that war and negotiating peace. EU did (more or less) nothing, i.e. perfected the ability to ignore the Syrian conflict.
Over the last months we witness a dreadful war in Nagorno Karabakh. It’s EU’s immediate neighbourhood. It is (arguably) Europe. EU did nothing, and became marginalised in Nagorno Karabkh. The whole world turned a blind eye to what was happening, except for Russia and Turkey.
The women and men of Belarus have shown unbelievable courage in fighting for their freedom, dignity and civil rights. EU first couldn’t agree on sanctions for Lukashenko and now doesn’t know how to support democracy and civil liberties, including freedom from torture and imprisonment, in Belarus.
Nigeria, one of the most populous countries in the world and certainly one of the most important countries in Africa, is in turmoil. Africa is supposedly a “key priority” of EU foreign policy interests. EU is not engaging.
Why is that? How can this be changed? EU is so preoccupied with internal debates, that it forgot to do its job and perform its wider global role and influence.
The division between liberal-democratic and populist-influenced governments within the EU has paralyzed EU’s security policy and foreign policy responses, as it was last seen with the Bulgarian veto of the enlargement process. It favours back door alliances where the member states compete not only with each other, but also try to take advantage of the EU itself. The liberum veto voting principle or required unanimity in voting on security and foreign policy issues has rendered the EU helpless and ineffective in these areas. On the other hand, introducing a qualified dual majority voting principle may further destabilize the already fragile EU structures and unity.
We cannot accept this situation where the populists have growing influence destabilising our security and future. We have to address the situation and act fast. To begin with, as the saying goes, “we really need to talk!”
 The New Despotism, John Keane (May 2020), ISBN 9780674660069