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Is Western Civilization Doomed?: A Review Essay

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In a span of 75 years, between 1926 and 2001, six books appeared which greatly influenced Western Man’s thinking about his own civilization, so called Western Civilization.

In chronological order of appearance they are: Oswald Spangler’s The Decline of the West (1926); Arnold Toynbee’s Civilization on Trial (1958); Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987); Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992); Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1998); and Erik Voegelin’s Order and History (2001).

In this essay we’ll survey those six books to determine how they have influenced the thinking of conservative ideologies which believe that while it is true that the West is in decline, there is still time to mitigate it or even to reverse it and preserve it for posterity. A mere glance at the titles of those books will hint at what the fuss and concern of those conservatives are. They go a long way in explaining their alarm at what they deem is an invasion of Europe by Moslems from Syria or Afghanistan or Turkey. They feel that Western Christian Civilization has to be defended anew from the hordes of Moslem invaders threatening its very existence. This is going on as we speak in Hungary which has now closed its borders justifying the measure as the defense of Europe.

The lazy way to explain this sad phenomenon of the advocacy of fortress Europe is to brand all those who invoke the preservation of heritage and civilization as sheer xenophobes or fascists, even racists, which they probably are; but such a shallow explanation does not even begin to touch the complexities of the Western cultural identity. In fact, it can be safely asserted that many of the crisis of present day EU are due to the refusal to search for and discover its genuine historical identity rather than summarily dismiss such a search as anti-modern, obscurantist, retrograde and medieval.

I believe that part of the problem is the failed distinction between what is universal and what is particular in Western Civilization. Characteristically, the imagined goods of modern progressive or leftist ideologies are conceived to be “universal” values (such as liberty, equality, and fraternity), whereas the goods and values defended by conservatives are more readily understood as contingent particulars. There does not appear to be a single substance knowable as Tradition per se, but rather many historical traditions, great and small, each making a claim for allegiance and conservation on its own particular terms. As a result, while there may be a Socialist International or a Communist International—one may even speak of a Liberal International—there has never been a Conservative International.

There is, however, one “quasi-universal” that conservatives of many nations have understood themselves to be conserving: the West. Obviously, the very word indicates that this good or value is not truly universal: it excludes, at least, the East. On the other hand, insofar as the term denotes a civilization transcending in space any particular Western state, transcending in time the history of any particular Western nation, and transcending in intellectual scope or catholicity any particular Western philosophy or doctrine, “the West” stretches toward a kind of universality. To speak of the West is to speak of something cosmopolitan, and yet not deracinated. Perhaps the defense of the West is close to the heart of what it means to be a conservative in the modern world—yet the definition of the West and the identification of the threats to it is also a source of disagreement among conservatives of various sorts, not to speak of progressives and liberals.

Earlier and particularly nineteenth-century assumptions about the West were nearly always whiggish celebrations of the historically “inevitable” progress of Western European civilization to its rightful place in the imperial sun: “Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set,/ God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet” was a British invocation, but it summed up a more general sense that the West was simply “the best”—and destined for indefinite global dominion. That confidence, however, was profoundly shaken by the civilizational self-immolation of the First World War. For many on the Left, the carnage of the Great War was evidence of the structural flaws of Western “bourgeois democracy,” requiring the remedy of revolution.

Against whom or what is it, then, that the West finds itself in need of defense? Two general forms of threat may be identified. First, over the course of the twentieth century it was frequently contended that the West must be defended from internal decay or decline. Conservative reflection on this theme was prompted in the first instance by an engagement with the thought of Oswald Spengler, whose book The Decline of the West was a publishing sensation in Germany and Europe immediately after the First World War. In a resonant, even poetic, though not altogether scientific manner, this prophet of pessimism argued that civilizations are organic wholes organized around a High Culture with a particular “Soul.” Civilizations throughout history have risen and fallen in a pattern of birth, growth, apex, decline, and death—and our Western civilization is no different. It is doomed like all the others.

In Spengler’s view, the West was clearly in the last phase of its civilizational life: the “Soul” was no longer animating the body. The telltale signs of a High Culture’s decay included skepticism, materialism, scientism, and the fall of philosophy into mere academicism on the one hand, and urbanization, vulgar democracy, the rule of the rich, and eventually bureaucracy on the other hand. The cataclysm of the two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century seemed to many to lend plausibility to the contention that the civilization of Western Europe (and its diaspora in the New World) was now entering its “twilight.” Vladimir Putin still goes around preaching this doctrine.

While Spengler himself held that the roughly thousand-year civilizational life-cycle was a fact of nature beyond man’s ability to control or modify—in short, that our civilization’s decline was inevitable and irreversible—this was not the lesson conservatives took from his work. Conservatism, after all, was accustomed to resisting the “tides” of history; indeed, conservatism often specialized in imagining ways to “turn back the clock.“ Far from leading to an acquiescence in pessimism, therefore, Spenglerian gloom served as a rallying cry, a call both to action and to reflection: if the sources of decay and decline could be uncovered, perhaps they could also be reversed. This has been the rallying crying of most 20th century dictators on both the right and the left.

Another writer whose thoughts on the rise and fall of civilizations colored conservative understandings of the West’s predicament was the philosophical historian Arnold Toynbee. Writing primarily in the 1950s, Toynbee developed a universal history of civilizations in terms of challenge and response. The challenge might be physical (e.g., the cultivation of nearly inarable land), civil-social (an internal intellectual crisis or religio-political faction), or external (the pressure of another civilization). Whatever the case, the response of a healthy and growing civilization depended upon the efforts of creative minorities able to meet the challenge. (In the absence of any challenges whatsoever, civilizations tended simply to decay.) The signs of civilizational decline, in turn, were a ruling minority turned in on itself and on its past glories—no longer creative—and the construction of a “Universal State” that acted to smother dissent and discontentment among an emergent “Proletariat.” Here one thinks of Nazism, or Fascism or Communism.

While Toynbee’s work was by no means accepted uncritically, conservatives did find many points of agreement. Toynbee, for example, tended to highlight religion as a source of recurring civilizational renewal, and conservatives too saw in religion a source of hope for the West. Toynbee’s “Universal State” and “Proletariat,” moreover, had something in common with the centralizing “collectivism” and emerging “mass society” of the twentieth century, against both of which conservatives had set themselves: perhaps, through conservative efforts, the West could retain or regain its individualistic spirit and so continue to nurture creative minorities. Most significantly, Toynbee was no determinist. There was no set date for the West’s demise; all depended on particular human choices and human actions. And, Toynbee admonished, “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” It was up to conservatives to forestall, through acts of cultural recovery, the West’s suicidal tendencies.

The theme of a moral crisis of the West, one requiring a concerted and creative response, has remained a staple of conservative argument for more than half a century. It is noteworthy that what are taken by Spengler, Toynbee, and many conservatives as the indicators of civilizational decline—a coolly skeptical stance toward religious claims, the sensual delights of an urbane materialism, the democratization of society, the rational administration of a bureaucracy, the growth of a cosmopolitan “Universal State,” the burgeoning of novel liberties—have been understood by others as signs of civilizational flourishing and progress. The experiences of the first half of the twentieth century taught conservatives to doubt the solidity and sustainability of such phenomena in the absence of vibrant cultural foundations. Hence, in recent years, conservative initiatives in the culture wars constitute a continuing effort to arrest internal tendencies toward decline within Western civilization.

Beyond the threat of internal decline, “the West” has also been understood to require defense against threats arising externally, in international conflict. By invoking loyalty to the West as a whole, one may make “one’s own” the political concerns of other peoples who are not fellow citizens of one’s nation-state. In other words, the West is a basis or rationale for “natural” alliance in time of war. Thus, the British during the First World War were eager for that conflict to be seen by their potential allies as one pitting the liberal and civilized traditions of the West against invading hordes from the East, “the Hun.” In this way, isolationist America and unenthusiastic Commonwealth countries could be brought into the conflict as allies in the common defense of (Western) civilization itself—rather than in defense of British imperial interests.

The inclusion of the Soviet Union among the Allies of the Second World War tended to obstruct recourse to the language of the West, but even still, both Churchill and De Gaulle in their wartime speeches spoke of the defense of “liberal and Christian civilization,” a good short description of the meaning of the West in contrast with Nazi barbarism. With the Nazi defeat and the advent of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the defense of the West could serve as the basis for the NATO alliance against the totalitarian barbarism of the Eastern Bloc.

It was in the context of the Cold War that the West became an especially important concept for a nascent Western conservatism. Given that context, the term West carried in the first instance both geostrategic and economic connotations—mirroring the fact that our Soviet Communist adversaries understood economics to be at the “base” of all political, cultural, and spiritual life. Thus, despite its cultural dissimilarities, Japan could be understood to stand among the “Western” nations, since it was a free-market democracy and a U.S. ally (having been reconstructed as such by the Americans after World War II), while Spain under Franco might be understood to stand outside the West, since it was not (yet) a NATO member, nor a democracy. During the Cold War, the world was more or less neatly divided between the Communist Eastern Bloc, the so-called Western alliance (NATO) whose glue was democracy, and those nations which held themselves to be Non-Aligned.

Yet throughout the Cold War period, conservative thinkers worked to reach a deeper level of analysis of the manifold crises of the twentieth century. Many, following Eric Voegelin, concluded that Soviet communism was an extreme instance of “Gnostic revolt”—in effect, a characteristic heresy within the Western experience, rather than something arising from outside the West. If the “armed doctrine” threatening the West was itself a bastard child of the West’s own traditions, however, then the defense of the West began not on the tense military frontier dividing the two Germanies; rather, the defense of the West must begin with an effort to educate Western publics about the orthodox strains of the Western heritage. But what exactly were the “orthodox” traditions of the West?

Standard nineteenth-century accounts of Western civilization understood the West to have four roots. Athens stood emblematically as the source of the West’s philosophical traditions. Jerusalem was the source of the West’s religious traditions. Rome was the source of the West’s legal traditions. And Germany—the German forests, in which had dwelt the Gothic tribes—was the source of the peculiarly Western spirit of liberty, contract, and self-government. In such an account, the West was in effect an alternative, secularized name for “Western Christendom.”

Christianity, after all, had absorbed ancient philosophy; the church had displaced the Roman Empire as a universal jurisdiction; and the Goths were converted. In such an account, Christianity is the primary “marker” of the West, and so Rome, the eternal city, might be understood as the main taproot among the other, lesser roots. Such an account had, and continues to have, a particular appeal for traditionalist conservatives: the West they seek to defend is readily recognizable as Christendom. As a result, such conservatism has tended to have a high opinion of medieval civilization, finding within it a privileged cultural synthesis that remains normative, and so standing in a critical relationship to certain features of the contemporary world. Such a conservatism also searches in the Middle Ages for the origins of many Western institutions and practices that are often mistaken for modern innovations. The source of the West’s dynamism, for example, is found to be the Church. Christopher Dawson’s The Making of Europe, jumps to mind here.

The first major challenge to this traditional account of the West occurred during the First World War: for the purposes of that war, Germany had to be located outside the West, and so a rich literature on the Gothic dimensions of the Western experience was lost. As a result, we would in time no longer be able to understand what Montesquieu, for example, meant when he praised England for having retained its Gothic constitution; we would no longer feel the intuitive force of Hegel’s arguments concerning the special world-historical role of “German freedom.” Western liberty would have to be extracted from other and perhaps less adequate sources.

In America, moreover, a Jerusalem-Athens-Rome account of the West was usually thought unsatisfactory, since it tended to confer primacy to Roman Catholicism as the synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem—something most non-Catholics were not prepared to concede. Protestants and others understood “liberty of conscience” and the protection of the “private judgment” of the individual to be singularly “Western” achievements, responsible for the West’s special dynamism during the modern period—and these were believed to follow only from the Reformation’s repudiation of Roman “obscurantism,” and even Roman “despotism.” As has been said: anti-Catholicism became the last acceptable bias.

Many American conservatives were therefore attracted to Leo Strauss’s articulation of the West’s Great Tradition as one of Jerusalem and Athens in irresolvable tension. This account had something to offer everyone. Catholics could read Strauss and supply Rome as the arena in which this tension had been worked out in history. Jews could appreciate an account of the West in which the religion of the Old Testament was understood to have priority over the New. Post-Barthian Protestants could resonate with the either-or existential choice between Athens and Jerusalem that Strauss posited as the fate of every thinking man.

For all of that, Strauss’s own choice was for Athens, not Jerusalem: Athens is the taproot in his account of the West, reaching deeper than other, lesser roots. For most neoconservative followers of Strauss, therefore, free inquiry and Socratic enlightenment are the primary “markers” of the West. The West they seek to defend is not Christendom, but rather the civilization that philosophy built and in which universal reason has its home: in other words, the civilization of modern liberal democracy.

Related to this Straussian account of the primacy of Western philosophy are those libertarian or classical liberal conservatives for whom the free market economy, with its abundant prosperity and constant technological innovation, constitutes the characteristic Western excellence. With some exceptions, such conservatives tend to identify the West with the “modern civilization” that arose in the eighteenth century as the project of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment—and often, it is said, in self-conscious rejection of earlier traditions. Whereas Straussians give priority to the modern political order, libertarians and classical liberals give priority to the modern economic order.

A host of conservative debates and areas of research arise from these contentions over the essence of Western civilization. Was modernity really achieved only in rejection of the West’s older heritage? Or is modernity a fruit of earlier Western traditions and institutions? (Or, more fundamentally, is modernity to be regarded simply as an unproblematic “achievement”?) Are modern Western institutions self-subsistent? Or do such institutions depend upon cultural prerequisites that may be undermined by modern life? If the West is identified exclusively with the modern and the cosmopolitan, is America in fact the only or the “most” Western nation? And if Socratic enlightenment, free markets, and modernity in general are truly universals, is the particular Western history that led to their achievement merely a husk that may be discarded once we have entered the stage of a truly universal civilization?

Such questions became urgent in the decade between the fall of Soviet communism in 1989–91 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. No longer facing an Eastern Bloc, the contours and boundaries of the West were thrown into doubt. Indeed, many observers—and not a few conservatives among them—followed Francis Fukuyama in concluding that we had reached the “End of History,” with liberal democracy (the characteristically Western political regime, but one with putatively global application) everywhere triumphant, and rightly so. Under Fukuyama’s tutelage, we witnessed the return of a version of the older Whig narrative, now in a new, quasi-Marxist or quasi-Hegelian guise: where before it had been said that communism was the inevitable “wave of the future,” it was now held that there was something inevitable about the triumph of liberal democracy. The West’s triumph was the triumph of humanity itself, a universal triumph.

At the same time, the 1990s were the decade of American conservatism’s acute struggle with multiculturalism in the academy. Despite numerous conservative caveats and objections, the locus classicus of conservative arguments against multicultural relativism was Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), a best-seller with enormous influence. Bloom was a student of Leo Strauss, and the peculiar feature of his intervention in the academic wars over the “canon” of texts to be studied in the university was his stipulation that the Great Books of the West were to be preferred only on account of their philosophic universality. In other words, the only rational basis for allegiance to the West was the West’s own allegiance to universal, Socratic questioning. Anything less would be a species of mere ethnocentrism.

As globalization—the universalization of Western business practices and popular culture—gathered strength in the 1990s, the “facts on the ground” lent further credence to an understanding of the West as a universal civilization openly available to all. Hence America, as the “the first universal nation“ seemed to stand as the West’s (and the world’s) vanguard and model.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, brought a jolting return to History. Suddenly, we were confronted anew by the most traditional enemy from the East: Islam—or at least elements from within Islam that were intent to resist the rise of a universal civilization built on Western foundations. Shortly after Fukuyama had published his work on the “end of history” (1992) Samuel Huntington had published an article (1993) and later a book, The Clash of Civilizations (1996) arguing that, after the Cold War, international conflict would no longer be nationalist (as had been the case in the nineteenth century), nor ideological (as had been the case in the twentieth), but would instead center around a “clash of civilizations.” That is, cultural identities and antagonisms would play a major role in relations among states. Presciently, he observed that Islam in particular has “bloody borders”—a greatly disproportionate number of the ongoing conflicts in the world involve Muslims. September 11 appeared to prove Huntington’s analysis more cogent than Fukuyama’s: there would be no escape from the burden of history, and ideas and institutions could not be discussed apart from culture and the historical process.

The situation remains unsettled intellectually, however. On the one hand, the attraction of a universal modern civilization equally available to all remains great—and so many conservatives, especially neoconservatives, are inclined to understand the emergent terrorist threat either as a species of totalitarian ideology (assimilating it to the experience of the twentieth century, as with the use of the term “Islamofascism,” to be defeated by force of arms) or else as a kind of historical backwardness (something “medieval”) that is susceptible to being “modernized” out of existence through the processes and practices of enlightenment, that is, through the application of “democracy.” In either view, the West’s history remains a universal history, confronting inevitable road bumps—albeit sometimes large ones—on the road to inevitable future triumph.

On the other hand, the confrontation with jihad (to say nothing of the spectacular recent rise of China) is beginning to force a reacquaintance with the particularities or non-universal elements of the West. Not least, we begin to appreciate more fully that Western ideals and institutions depend at least to some extent on cultural foundations that are the possession of historically Western peoples—and so we view with alarm the demographics of contemporary Europe, the cradle of the West, with a burgeoning Muslim minority amidst a dwindling native population. Hence the closing of the borders.

Even if the West is less universal than we have lately thought, so the argument goes, it is still good, still ours, and still in need of a defense. This explains the forbidding of the constructions of mosques and the closing of the frontiers (Hungary in particular which claims to be defending nothing less than European Christendom) to the hordes of Moslem refugees fleeing from the Syrian conflict and seeking refuge and a new life in the EU.

And yet there are some European intellectuals that have been exploring the idea of multiple modernities which would include religion as part of the ongoing dialogue in the public agora on the West’s identity. Jurgen Habermas is one of those. But for the moment let’s leave the concept of “multiple modernities” for another essay in the Ovi Symposium.

Note: This article has previously appeared in Ovi magazine.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

Europe

Tactical Retreat: Madrid Makes Concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country

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The November 2019 general parliamentary elections in Spain resulted in none of the parties getting an absolute majority needed to form a government. Following two months of negotiations, a left-wing coalition between the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) and Unidas Podemos (United We Can) was formed in January 2020. Having received the necessary parliamentary support, Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the socialists, assumed the post of the Spanish Prime Minister.

Catalan and Basque parties are now vital for the Spanish government

Since this is the first coalition government in the history of modern Spain that does not rely on a stable parliamentary majority, the role of regional parties has significantly increased. The PSOE-Podemos coalition only has 155 mandates, falling short of the majority (176) by 21 votes. In such a situation, success of any initiative put forward by the left-wing government depends on the support of other parliamentary parties—in particular, the nationalist movements of Catalonia and the Basque Country. The Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the ERC) and “Together for Catalonia” account for 13 and 8 seats, whereas the Basque Nationalist Party (BNP) and the EH-Bildu are each represented by 6 and 5 MPs.

Support of the four regional parties facilitated a number of crucial events in the Spanish political process. These include Pedro Sanchez, the PSOE leader, taking the office of Prime Minister in January 2020, a repeated extension of the state of emergency in the country in spring 2020, the adoption of the state budget for 2021 as well as passing the bill on the distribution of money from the EU recovery fund into law.

In this regard, both Catalonia and the Basque Country are now presented with more opportunities to promote their interests in broadening autonomous powers in exchange for their support of the governmental projects. At times of the bipartisan system, when the party to win general elections could independently form a majority government, regional forces had weaker bargaining positions. However, the value of their votes in the Congress of Deputies today has increased drastically. Amid such conditions, P. Sanchez has no other way but intensify interaction with the two autonomies on the issues of interest to them. He is driven by the desire to sustain support of the regional forces, ensuring the viability of his government.

Different aims: Catalonia is seeking referendum while the Basque Country is keen to broaden its autonomy

The coronavirus pandemic, which broke out in 2020, did not allow to launch another stage of negotiations between the Spanish government and the political leadership of Catalonia and the Basque Country. Notably, each autonomy has its own strategy and aims to pursue in their negotiations with Madrid.

The negotiations agenda of the new Catalan government, formed by the ERC and “Together for Catalonia” following the regional elections on February 14, 2021, includes: 1) amnesty for all the prisoners detained after the illegal referendum on October 1, 2017; 2) agreement with the government on holding another, this time official, referendum on the status of the autonomy; 3) revision of the current structure of financial inflows in favor of increasing investments from Madrid in the budget of the autonomy.

At the same time, the Basque government, headed by the BNP, has a different set of objectives: 1) implementation of all the remaining provisions enshrined in the Statute of Autonomy of the region, namely the transfer of some 30 competencies in self-governance to the regional authorities; 2) resuming talks on a new Statute of Autonomy; 3) formation of a broad negotiating platform involving the largest Spanish and Basque political forces.

In 2021, negotiations on these issues were intensified between Madrid and the regions. Each autonomy has managed to achieve certain results in pursuing their interests.

Catalonia: two tactical victories with no prospects for a referendum

Both Catalonia and the Basque Country managed to get a number of significant concessions in the course of June to October 2021. By doing it, P. Sanchez has shown the importance of the two autonomies in maintaining stability in the PSOE-Podemos coalition government.

Catalonia succeeded in achieving two important outcomes. The first victory was a judicial one. On June 23, 2021, amnesty was granted to all 12 prisoners sentenced to terms from 9 to 13 years on the charges related to the illegal referendum on the status of the autonomy that was held on October 1, 2017. This step sparked a severe backlash in the Kingdom, with demonstrations held in many regions. The majority of Spaniards (61%) expressed disagreement with such a move. However, it manifests that P. Sanchez is ready to make controversial compromises to maintain his political allies, despite possible long-term losses of the electorate support.

The second success of Catalonia was in the political domain. Due to a flexibility of the central government, the first talks in a year and a half that took place between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Pere Aragones, the head of the Catalan government, became possible. While the sides only exchanged views on topical bilateral issues at their first face-to-face meeting on June 27, 2021, the parties could hold a substantive discussion of a plan to normalize interaction during the second round on September 15.

In the meantime, it was the Catalan side that set the agenda. This emphasizes the increasing role of the autonomy in bilateral relations, while indicating that Madrid is keen to garner support among the Catalan deputies. This is the why the central government is ready to offer some concessions.

Following the talks, the Prime Minister stated that the sides managed to agree on 44 out of 45 points of the document presented by P. Aragones. However, the only stumbling block remaining is a new referendum in Catalonia. On this issue, P. Sanchez is not going to make any concessions.

The Basque Country: higher flexibility and new competencies for the autonomy

Madrid has also stepped up negotiations with the Basque Country. However, it should be added here that the region has managed to achieve more tangible results in terms of expanding its autonomous powers in judicial and financial matters.

First, as the agreement signed in April 2021 suggests, three penitentiary centers with 1,378 prisoners were handed over to the Basque Government from October 1, namely the Department for Equality, Justice and Social Policy.

Second, the talks on July 28 between Pedro Sanchez, Spanish Prime Minister, and Inigo Urkullo, head of the Basque government, within the framework of the Joint Economic Commission resulted in new tax competencies handed over to the Basque Country. Local authorities are now in charge of collecting taxes from e-commerce, financial transactions and digital services. This may lead to an inflow of additional 220 ml euros to the Basque budget.

In response to such steps of the Spanish government, I. Urkullo made an eleventh-hour decision to attend the Conference of regional leaders on July 29, 2021. This event is of political importance as it unites the heads of all Spain’s 17 autonomies. At the same time, the Catalan Pere Aragones did not participate in the meeting. Had both Catalonia and the Basque Country been absent, this would have come as a real blow to P. Sanchez. Therefore, it was of utmost importance for the Prime Minister to persuade at least the Basque leader to attend the meeting. Urkullo’s presence partly contributed to the image of Sanchez as a politician who can reach agreement with the regions.

Key differences between the Catalan and the Basque government that influence relations with Madrid

In Catalonia, the coalition government is dominated by the ERC, which is more moderate and ready to move away from harsh rhetoric in favor of discussing common problems with Madrid. At the same time, its partner, “Together for Catalonia” that lost the February 2021 regional elections to ERC by only a narrow margin, stands for more straightforward actions.

Such a configuration within the coalition restricts Catalonia’s flexibility. The main goal of the radical wing is a new referendum. The ERC’s moderate approach is counterbalanced by “Together for Catalonia”. It does not support excessive rapprochement with Madrid or any deviation from that idea.

At the same time, the situation is different in the Basque Country. The moderate BNP enjoys leading positions in the government coalition while the EH-Bildu has a much lower weight in strategy setting. It allows the autonomy to be flexible, interacting with Madrid in a more successful manner.

Moreover, the talks between Catalonia and Madrid are still held in a narrow format of face-to-face meetings between the Prime Minister of Spain and the head of the autonomy. At the same time, the Basque Country has already resumed dialogue within the Joint Economic Commission. This is a more inclusive format that enables the sides to cover a wider range of topics.

Currently, the Basque Country’s give-and-take strategy results in smaller but more meaningful concessions, bringing about a broadening of its autonomous powers in exchange for political support of the central government. Meanwhile, Catalonia’s attempts to achieve more significant results, which may affect the image of P. Sanchez, bump up against Madrid’s reluctance to cross the red line. The Prime Minister is ready to make some tactical concessions to the autonomies in order to garner political support for his initiatives. Despite certain criticism from the right wing, such steps confirm the effectiveness of the PSOE-Podemos coalition, demonstrating the viability of the incumbent government to the electorate.

Talks have future as long as the left-wing coalition remains in power

The future of the negotiations between the center and the autonomies heavily depends on the 2023 Spanish general elections. Right-wing parties like the People’s Party, VOX and “Citizens” are not inclined to broad negotiations with Catalan and Basque nationalists. If these parties form the next government just in two years, the entire process of normalizing relations with the regions may be put on hold.

P. Sanchez’s excessive flexibility in negotiations with Catalonia and the Basque Country may lead to a higher popularity of the right-wing VOX party. Those among voters, who are dissatisfied with the policy of offering concessions to nationalists, may switch to the forces that safeguard the Spanish constitutional order. Another problem for the PSOE-Podemos government is the socio-economic recovery of Spain from COVID-19.

Little progress in these two directions is likely to result in the loss of public support. The influence of Catalonia and the Basque Country will not see a decline in the coming years. It is therefore essential for Madrid to make new concessions similar to those made to the Basque Country. But they should be gradual to provoke less publicity.

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Europe

Is British Democracy in Danger?

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On Sunday 12th of December 2021 Boris Johnson went on national television to warn about a tidal wave that would threaten Britain. He was back then referring to the Omicron Covid-19 variant, little did he know back then that he could have been referring to his own political future. Johnson is facing increasing demands from his own party to step down after having admitted to attending a party in Downing Street on May 20th, 2020, during the UK’s first national lockdown.

Johnson has been facing increasing risks for quite a long time by now: from collapsing poll ratings, to violation of lockdown rules and an ill-managed pandemic that has continued to strain the National Health Service; among many others. These crises have compromised his moral authority both with the citizenry and with his own frontbenchers. Although in the UK confidence votes can happen relatively quick: the no confidence vote on Theresa May’s government was held on December 12th, 2018, just a day after she was informed that the minimum threshold had been reached, this is still not on the horizon for the current Prime Minister.

To trigger a leadership contest 15% of the Tory MPs need to submit a letter to the chair of the 1922 Committee. There are currently 360 Tory MPs, 54 of them are needed to spark a confidence vote. As up to now, very few have publicly confirmed to either have submitted or to have the intention to submit a letter. If such threshold is reached, this would open the debate as to whether there is someone suitable enough to replace him. The frontrunners are Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss; neither have the proven record of vote-winning Boris Johnson has had ever since he was the Mayor of London. Such vote of confidence is also unlikely to happen as majority of the crises the government has faced are of their own making. Johnson is not the cause; it is the symptom of a deeper decay of the British State and their politicians.

While the Conservatives will not be able to escape the cumulative effects of current and past scandals, this latest turmoil us unlikely to trigger the collapse of Boris Johnson. The next British election is scheduled to happen in May 2024, giving both Johnson and the Tories enough time to move on from this crisis and work on rebuilding electoral support. Boris Johnson has long defied political gravity and has survived a long history of scandals and mismanagements that may have destroyed the electoral chances of many other politicians and their political parties. It is highly likely that in the coming local elections in May 2022 the Conservatives will suffer electoral defeats, this is still preferable than what the political and electoral consequences for the Conservatives would be if they were to get rid of Johnson. Sacking him now would be accepting losing the war rather than losing a battle in the coming local elections. The long-term aim of the Tories is to hold on power for as long as they can, and at least ensure their electoral base is secure coming the 2024 general elections. For this, Boris Johnson still may come in handy.

Although Boris Johnson’s record has been shockingly poor; the Tories will not give Labour a chance for a general election before the scheduled for 2024, especially not now that they are leading the polls on the question as to who would make a better prime minister. The reality is that although his ratings have plummeted dramatically over recent years, there is no real threat of a general election for at least 2 years if one considers the larger political landscape.

One of the major threats British democracy does not come from Boris Johnson but rather from a deterioration of what sustains democracy as a healthy system of government. The UK electorate is highly volatile. Unlike countries like the US whose electorate has become highly polarised, the British electorate has shown less party loyalty, and voters have switched more and more between political parties in each election. However, this volatility will not get Johnson out of office, that is something only the Conservatives can do. This is closely linked to trust in politicians and the government. Lack of trust in both is one of the major issues of contemporary democracies around the world. Trust, is, after all, the basic condition for a legitimate government. Lack of trust in politicians, institutions, political parties, and the government in general enables populist tendencies, polarisation, political extremism and impacts the voting preference of citizens. It also favours the support of more stringent stances towards minorities, opposition, immigration, and human rights violations. A second threat that should not be disregarded is the attitude towards democratic institutions and bodies that sustain the British political system. While it is true that Johnson’s behaviour does not push to extremes such as Donal Trump did, or many other highly divisive politicians around the world, he is drawn to the same unconventional styles to deal with political challenges.

Democracy around the world is facing a backlash that is organised and coming from within, from elected officials. Our democratic rights can either be taken away suddenly as a result of a revolution or a coup d’état, or gradually through the election of leaders who slowly erode rules, standards and institutions that help sustain democracy. This is potentially more dangerous for the overall prospects of democracy because gradual erosion of democratic values is harder to perceive. The state, under this progressive attack, becomes prone to the systematic corruption of interest groups that take over the processes and institutions in charge of making public policy. It is during this gradual democratic backsliding that elected officials disregard norms and institutions while, at the same time, trying to redesign the structure of the state. An informed and active citizenry is crucial to prevent further erosion of democracy. We need to be aware that it is not only democratic rules and institutions that are in danger, but also the respect of our fundamental civil, political, social and human rights.

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Europe

The French Dispatch: The Year 2022 and European Security

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2021 has been rich in negative events for European security: the world has witnessed the collapse of the Open Skies Treaty, American-French discord concerning AUKUS, the termination of the official dialogue between Russia and NATO, and the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border.

Over the past year, the Western countries seem to have been searching for new strategies. Since the end of 2019, NATO has been developing a new concept, and in June 2021 at the summit in Brussels, to the displeasure of sceptics, it was possible to agree on its basis—the transatlantic agenda NATO 2030 (# NATO2030) . While the broad formulations and a direct hierarchy of threats still require clarification, new projects in the field of weapons development, combating climate change, and increasing interoperability have already been declared.

In parallel, since the end of 2020, work has continued on the EU European Parliamentary Research Service project—the Strategic Compass. The dialectic between Atlanticism and Europeanism softened after Joe Biden came to power in the United States, but the European interests and red lines retain their significance for transatlantic relations. In 2022, together with the rotating post of the President of the EU Council, the role of a potential newsmaker in this area has been transferred to Emmanuel Macron, who feels very comfortable in it.

On December 9, the provisions of the Paris programme were published under the motto “Recovery, power, belonging” France, as expected, is reiterating its call for strengthening European sovereignty. The rhetoric of the document and its author is genuine textbook-realism. But now for the entire European Union.

Objectives of the French Presidency, are not articulated directly but are quite visible—making the EU more manageable and accountable to its members, with new general rules to strengthen mobilisation potential, and improve the EU’s competitiveness and security in a world of growing challenges.

Paris proposes reforming the Schengen area and tightening immigration legislation—a painful point for the EU since 2015, which has become aggravated again in recent months. This ambitious task has become slightly more realistic since Angela Merkel’s retirement in Germany. At least a new crisis response mechanism on this issue can be successful, even if it is not fully implemented.

In addition, the Élysée Palace calls on colleagues to revise the budget deficit ceilings of the Maastricht era to overcome the consequences of the pandemic and finally introduce a carbon tax at the EU borders. The latter allows for a new source of income and provides additional accountability for the implementation of the “green” goals by member countries.

The planned acceleration of the adoption of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA), developed by the European Commission at the end of 2020, is also aimed at unifying the general legislation and consolidating the European position in the world. In other words, the French Foreign Ministry quite soberly assesses the priority areas and vulnerabilities of the European Union and focuses on them, but with one exception.

A special priority of the French presidency is to strengthen the defence capabilities of the EU. On the sidelines, the French diplomats note that the adoption of the Strategic Compass in the spring of 2022, as originally planned, is a fundamental task, since otherwise the process may be completely buried. With a high degree of probability, this is so: the first phase of the development of the Compass—the general list of threats—lasted a year, and consisted of dozens of sessions, meetings, round tables with the involvement of leading experts, but the document was never published. If Macron won’t do it, then who will?

As the main ideologist and staunchest supporter of the EU’s “strategic autonomy”, the French president has been trying for five years to mobilise others for self-sufficiency in the security sphere. With his direct participation, not only the Mechanism of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in the defence area was launched, where France is the leader in a number of projects, but also the so-far failed European Intervention Initiative. Even without focusing on French foreign policy traditions and ambitions, the country remains a major European arms exporter and a nuclear power, where the military-industrial complex is closely affiliated with the state.

Implementing the 2022 agenda is also a matter of immediate political gain as France enters a new electoral cycle. The EU Summit will take place on March 10-11, 2022, in Paris, a month before the elections, and in any case it will become part of the election campaign and a test for the reputation of the current leader. Macron has not yet officially announced his participation in the presidential race, but he is actively engaged in self-promotion, because right-wing politicians espousing different degrees of radicalism are ready to take advantage of his defeats to purchase extra points.

The search for allies seems to be of key importance for victory at the European level, and the French Foreign Ministry has already begun working on this matter. In 2016–2017 the launch of new initiatives was predetermined by the support of Germany and the Central and East European countries. The change of cabinet in Germany will undoubtedly have an impact on the nation’s policy. On the one hand, following the results of the first visit of the new Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Paris on December 10, the parties announced the closeness of their positions and a common desire to strengthen Europe. On the other hand, the coalition of Social Democrats (SDP) was made up with the Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) who are not at all supporters of excessive involvement in security issues. What “strategic autonomy” means for France, constitutes a more restrained “strategic sovereignty” for Germany Therefore, an intensification of dialogue with Italy and Spain, which are both respected and potentially sympathetic, is likely. The military cooperation agreement concluded in the autumn of 2021 with Greece, an active member of PESCO, can also help Paris.

Gaining support from smaller countries is more challenging. Although the European project is not an alternative to the transatlantic one, the formation of a common list of threats is a primary task and problem for NATO as well. As mentioned above, it is around it that controversy evolves, because the hierarchy determines the distribution of material resources. The countries of Eastern Europe, which assume that it is necessary to confront Russia but lack the resources to do so, will act as natural opponents of the French initiatives in the EU, while Paris, Rome and Madrid will oppose them and the United States in the transatlantic dialogue. The complexity of combining two conversations about the same thing with a slightly different composition of participants raises the bar for Emmanuel Macron. His stakes are high. The mobilisation of the Élysée Palace’s foreign policy is one of the most interesting subjects to watch in the year 2022.

From our partner RIAC

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