The past year has destroyed our certainties. We are worried about Europe's future and the solidarity of the West, writes Barbara Wesel.
It was a year that shocked us more than almost any other within living memory. Our trust in our ability to foresee the course of history has been destroyed, along with our trust that although Europe has its problems, our future inarguably lies in solidarity with one another. It has also shattered our belief that the world will continue to develop according to the principles of liberal democracy, as well as our confidence that our institutions and civilized interaction within society can control the political course. We stand before the ruins of our concept of how the world ought to be.
Brexit: The dam bursts
Everyone was wrong: pollsters, betting shops and political analysts. The result on that June night when the Britons decided to leave the European Union was like an earthquake. The propaganda of the EU opponents had been successful. People believed any nonsense: that hundreds of millions of pounds of contributions to the EU would be put into the healthcare system, that trade deals with the entire world would be easy to strike, and that the Brexit would bring about an economic boom. Seldom has such a shameless campaign of lies had such success.
By now, it has become apparent that leaving the bloc will be complicated and cause economic damage to all involved. And it will be the Britons in the economically disadvantaged regions in the north, who voted in favor of the Brexit, who will pick up the tab. The reasons for their voting as they did include political nostalgia, yearning for a past that seems to have been more in their control. Since the British referendum, we know that those who chose to leave are mostly older and worse educated. These "losers of globalization" have become the major political factor.
But Europe has lost its self-confidence. Since the Brexit, the peace project that has dominated the past few decades has been called into question. The willingness to compromise on the part of EU member states has declined, and the word solidarity has become a term of abuse. Nationalism, the specter of the past two world wars, is experiencing a resurrection.
A look outside the EU puts shivers down one's spine: Europeans watched on as President Erdogan used a failed coup to turn Turkey into a dictatorship. Purges and mass arrests are his instruments for extending his power. The EU desperately clings onto the refugee deal and wants to keep "channels of communication" to Ankara open. But in truth, there is nothing more to talk about, and hasn't been for some time. Erdogan, who arrived on the scene as a reformer, has turned into an autocratic ruler.
There are also political enemies even in the ranks of the EU: Victor Orban has been able to erode Hungary's democratic institutions unimpeded, and since then has been stirring up eastern Europeans against the West. And Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland has taken Orban's cue: Step by step, he is jettisoning democratic rights while Europe looks on helplessly. The EU should throw Poland out, former freedom fighter Lech Walesa recently said. But it can't; the hands of European democrats are tied by its own rules.
And then came Trump. When the unimaginable happened in November and the Americans elected as president a real-estate mogul with a dubious past, unpredictable character and no political experience, an even more profound shockwave went through Europe. The belief in the continued existence of the West, in NATO and its defense pledges and in democracy in the USA are shattered. The "losers of globalization" had raised their voice, along with racists, misogynists and far-right extremists of every persuasion. In view of these threats, Europe should really close ranks, but only a few people seem to understand the gravity of the situation. Angela Merkel is certainly one of these few.
Putin is the godfather
In the background, Vladimir Putin is rubbing his hands in glee. The European right-wing populists fawn on him and take his money. Do the voters in Austria understand what the Freedom Party (FPÖ) was doing there in Moscow? Do they want to wake up as a province of a new Great Russian Empire? The right-wing rabble-rousers in France and the Netherlands are also looking to move toward Putin. And he is using every opportunity, from cyberattacks to propaganda campaigns, to undermine Europe.
The veneer of civilization is thin, and the populists, from Nigel Farage to the Alternative for Germany (AfD), constantly push the boundaries of accepted decency as a political device. For example, Farage recently attacked the widower of murdered British politician Jo Cox - she was killed by a Neonazi during the Brexit campaign - as an "extremist." Farage is still looking for more taboos to break. And the AfD's Marcus Pretzell used last Monday's attack on a Christmas market in Berlin to criticize Angela Merkel along the same lines. The rule is: Facts no long play any role and any sense of decency is abolished. Joseph Goebbels would be proud of his pupils.
We still have a chance. The case of Austria has shown that liberal voters can be mobilized. They have prevented FPÖ candidate Hofer from reaching a position of prestige. And in Poland, the opposition is now fighting vigorously against the erosion of democracy. Those who do not want to see the scenarios from the year 2016 as their future must become involved in protecting liberal democracy. And this also means showing the Farages and Pretzells of this world where the boundaries are.
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