The post WWII architecture is a strong and decisive reaction to the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust. The United Nations, created in San Francisco on 26 June 1945, are built on three main pillars: Freedom from fear and violence, freedom from want and poverty, human rights and respect for human dignity. For the first time in human history, war has been prohibited in international law with only minor exceptions, namely the right of States to self-defence and the collective security system under the guidance of the UN Security Council. For the first time in human history, the promotion and protection of human rights were acknowledged as a legitimate goal of the international community and international law. For the first time in human history, the main perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity had been brought to justice before international military tribunals in Nuremberg and Tokyo. And for the first time in human history, economic and social development, prosperity and the eradication of poverty have been defined as goals of a new world order. These ambitious aims and objectives were only possible thanks to the antifascist consensus among the allies, which at that time seemed to be even stronger than the differences between capitalism and communism. When the UN Human Rights Commission, the predecessor of the current Human Rights Council, drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights between 1946 and 1948, this antifascist consensus was still strong enough to achieve a synthesis between the Western and the Socialist concepts of human rights. The Universal Declaration, solemnly adopted in Paris on 10 December 1948, contains civil and political rights together with economic, social and cultural rights and with the vision of a new “social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized” (Article 28).
As soon as the Human Rights Commission started to transfer this historic compromise between liberal freedoms and social security into a legally binding universal convention on human rights, the United States and its allies in 1951 forced a decision in the UN General Assembly to split human rights again into two categories, which dominated the ideological debates during the time of the Cold War. The International Bill of Rights, which was finally adopted after long negotiations in 1966, was divided into the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, favoured by the West, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, favoured by the Soviet Union and its allies. Civil and political rights and freedoms were conceived as immediately binding State obligations to respect and ensure the rights to life, personal liberty, privacy, security and integrity, freedom of expression, religion, assembly and association and the right to participate in democratic decision making processes. Economic, social and cultural rights to work, fair, equal and healthy working conditions, social security, the rights to food, housing, health, education and an adequate standard of living, on the other hand, were conceived as mere “programme rights” to be achieved step by step through progressive implementation.
As WWII had started as a European war between fascist and democratic States, Europe felt a particular responsibility to prevent another war and catastrophe like the Holocaust through economic and political cooperation and the protection of human rights. While the European Communities of the 1950s aimed at preventing another war through economic integration, the Council of Europe was established already in 1949 as a political organization based upon human rights, pluralistic democracy and the rule of law. The Council of Europe was a Western European organization, which defended these “European values” against any form of totalitarianism, whether fascism (as practiced at that time in Spain and Portugal) or communism (as practiced in a growing number of Central and Eastern European States).By adopting the European Convention on Human Rights(ECHR) in 1950, which only contained civil and political rights, the Council of Europe left no doubt that it was a Western organization, which did not feel bound by the indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights, as expressed in the Universal Declaration. Economic, social and cultural rights played and unfortunately still play in the Council of Europe a subordinate role. The European Convention with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which decides in a legally binding manner on tens of thousands of individual applications per year, is the light-tower of human rights protection in Europe, while the European Social Charter of 1961 and its monitoring system is much weaker and very little known to the public. Nevertheless, this is the time when the social welfare state, based on the economic policies of John Maynard Keynes, was developed in Western Europe, North America and other industrialized nations. The architects of the social welfare state or a market economy with a human face were, however, not even aware that they were implementing economic, social and cultural rights, as these rights were primarily associated with the Soviet Union and its allies.
During the Cold War, human rights were the subject of fierce ideological battles between Western and Communist States, and to a lesser degree, the newly independent States of the Global South. Nevertheless, this was the time when human rights were codified at the universal and regional level. In addition of the two Covenants of 1966, the United Nations adopted a number of universal human rights treaties, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1965, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979, the Convention against Torture of 1984 or the Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989. These core human rights treaties are today almost universally ratified. On the regional level, the two most important treaties, which were largely based on the European Convention, are the American Convention on Human Rights of 1969 and the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights of 1981.
With the implosion of the Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe and the velvet revolutions of 1989, which quickly led to the fall of the iron curtain and the end of the Cold War, a historic window of opportunity opened for a new world order based upon human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action promised a new era, based upon the equality, universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights, spear-headed by the newly created Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. For the first time, the collective security system of the UN Charter was applied in practice and led to new generations of peace-building missions with human rights components and peace-enforcement actions, which also tackled some of the worst human rights violations. Two ad-hoc international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda were established by the UN Security Council as the first ones after the Nuremberg and Tokyo military tribunals and led to the creation of a permanent International Criminal Court in 1998. In the same year, the 11th Additional Protocol to the ECHR entered into force and transformed the European Court of Human Rights into a full-time court which since then has delivered thousands of judgments every year, most of them in relation to the newly admitted former Communist States in Central and Eastern Europe. In 2000, the EU adopted a Charter on Fundamental Rights, and the United Nations adopted Millennium Development Goals, which promised a better future, above all for the poor and marginalized communities in the Global South. Despite the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which happened before the eyes of UN peacekeepers, one can conclude that never before were human rights advanced in such a quick, innovative and forceful manner than during the 1990s.
Let’s go back to 1989, which was a truly remarkable year in human history. In addition to the velvet revolutions, the world wide web was created, and with the “Washington Consensus”, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund agreed to adopt the neoliberal economic policies of privatization, deregulation and minimizing the role of the State, which had been advocated for many years by the Chicago School of Economics, thereby replacing the more interventionist economic policies of John Maynard Keynes. This meant that the rapid digitalization and globalization of our world were driven by neoliberal economic and financial policies. As a consequence, the historic opportunity of implementing a new world order inspired by universal human rights, democracy and the rule of law wassoon replaced by a new world order driven by transnational corporations and global financial markets. On the one hand, these policies led to an unprecedented economic growth and global digitalization, which contributed to more prosperity and a significant reduction of poverty, above all in China, India and other Asian States. On the other hand, these policies led to a dramatic increase of economic inequality, which is undermining the social coherence and democratic values of our societies. Radical policies of privatization, which had started already in the US and the UK during the 1980s, include even core State functions, such as the military, intelligence, police, justice and prisons (rise of private military and security companies), as well as providing social security, pensions, health care and education. The policy of minimizing the role of the State, which is often imposed on governments by the international financial institutions, result in drastic reductions in social security and social welfare and undermine the obligation of States to protect and fulfil economic, social and cultural rights, but also civil and political rights. In this context, we observe the rising phenomenon of failed and fragile states, which lead to insecurity, armed conflicts, the rise of organized crime and terrorism. Finally, the deregulation of global financial markets led to unprecedented speculations, tax evasion, money laundering, corruption and the undermining of the banking system, which directly resulted in the global financial and economic crisis of 2008. There can also be no doubt that the neoliberal economic policies contributed significantly to the current climate crisis, the ruthless exploitation of nature, deforestation and the destruction of our environment. The slim neoliberal state has no longer the power and the political will to regulate and control transnational corporations and global financial markets, and international organizations, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization or the European Union, which would have the power by concerted efforts to regain political control over global markets, are either at the forefront of neoliberal economic policies themselves or are increasingly undermined by nationalistic and populistic politicians. The Brexit, attacks by the Russian Federation against the Council of Europe, the sidelining of the United Nations in relation to the armed conflicts in Syria, Libya and other regions, and open attacks by the United States against the United Nations, its specialized agencies, such as the World Health Organization, or against the International Criminal Court are only a few symptoms of the current crisis of multilateralism.
The world was in disarray when the Corona virus appeared on the global agenda at the beginning of a new decade, and when the COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented lockdown of the global economy, a fundamental restructuring of our daily life and drastic restrictions of our most cherished human rights. Our world was certainly not well prepared to deal with this pandemic, which has caused already more deaths worldwide than the tsunami as the worst disaster of the 21st century. The most neoliberal States, such as the US, the UK and Brazil, which happen to be governed by politicians, who are used to “solve” crisis situations by spreading fake news and searching for scapegoats, seem to be hit most severely. In Europe, States which had cut down their public health and social security systems most radically, such as the UK, Italy and Spain, encountered much more serious problems to contain the spread of the virus than States, where the public health and social security systems had somehow survived neoliberal policies. Even politicians, who for many years had preached that free markets are much better equipped to solve problems than governments, realized that we need strong and well-functioning States to take the necessary measures and that we should listen to experts rather than populists, fake news and social media in order to cope effectively with this pandemic. It is too early to draw far-reaching conclusions since we are still in the middle of this health crisis and do not know how the coming months will develop. Nevertheless, there is a growing awareness among the people, irrespective of their political opinions and political party alliances, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way how we are living and that we need to drastically change our economic, political and social world order if we wish to ensure the survival of our planet and a healthy and satisfactory life for our children and future generations.
Where does this leave us with respect to the topic of this conference? What can we learn from this short historical overview for a pan-European future, built upon antifascism as a European confidence building block, mutual trust and good neighbourly relations? One conclusion is obvious: In order to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and other global challenges, such as the global climate crisis, growing economic inequality or global migration, we need to strengthen, rather than weaken, the regulatory functions of States and of international organizations, both at the global and regional (European) level. Secondly, we need to replace the neoliberal economic politics by a new and more social market economy “with a human face”, which is more responsible towards nature, towards economic equality and solidarity with the poor and marginalized sectors of our societies, at the national, regional (European) and global level. This also means that politics need to regain its power to control and regulate the economy, as has been well illustrated during the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to use this new confidence in a responsible regulatory power of politics to also tackle other global threats, such as the climate crisis. At the same time, we need to strengthen the EU by transferring certain powers in the field of social justice, public health, environmental protection, asylum and migration policies from the member States to the EU institutions. The EU, which, despite the Brexit, is still a major global economic and political player, shall further be entrusted by its member States to pursue and strengthen these socially and ecologically sustainable politics also at the global level, above all in the international financial institutions and the WTO.
With respect to the Council of Europe, which is a truly pan-European organization with currently 47 member States and a pioneer in international human rights protection, we need to introduce economic, social and cultural rights on an equal level with civil and political rights and try to overcome the deep distrust between the Russian Federation and Western European States. This requires confidence-building from both sides. The Council of Europe, as a Western European organization, had quickly opened its doors after 1989 and invited the former Communist States to join. Many States used the Council of Europe as an entry door for quick EU and/or NATO membership, which was not always properly coordinated with Moscow and led even to armed conflicts in Georgia and the Ukraine. Many “frozen conflicts” in Europe, such as Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Tansnistria, Eastern Ukraine, Kosovo and the Republika Srpska, can only be solved if the Russian Federation is again better integrated into European politics. The Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), provide the necessary diplomatic platforms, but the political will for mutual confidence-building is still lacking. Antifascism is no longer a meaningful basis for a pan-European confidence block, and in fact it had played this role only for a few years immediately after WWII. If the Council of Europe, with the active support of the EU, would be able to build a pan-European social welfare system, which is based on the indivisibility of all human rights rather than on neoliberal economic policies, then it would resume its pioneering role as a political organization that is uniting Europe on the basis of common European values.
(Exclusive speech for the Conference at the DAW, Vienna, 1 July 2020)
An occasion for the EU to reaffirm its standing on Security policies and Human Rights
Vice-President of the EU Commission Margaritis Shinas was a keynote speaker at this summer’s Diplomatic Conference in Vienna organised by the International Institute IFIMES, Media Platform Modern Diplomacy and their partners. High dignitary of the Commission seized the occasion to express the EU’s take on the 75th anniversary of victory over fascism, unfolding health crisis and to it related pressure on human and labour rights, as well as on the Union’s continued efforts towards remaining a ‘rock’ amid the volatile climate.
It is known by now – and acknowledged by the EU Commission VP – that the COVID-19 crisis has had some severe implications for Human Rights and, to a lesser extent, for cooperation outlooks. In the face of the first wave, countries in Europe and elsewhere have adopted different courses of actions in order to manage the health crisis and attempt at containing its threats. Placed in an unprecedented situation, governments have undoubtedly each reacted in ways they deemed most appropriate at the time.
However, the pandemic itself topped with the varied policies have caused notable restrictions on Human Rights. Most notoriously, the right to life and that to health have been challenged in extreme circumstances where, at the peak of the crisis, health institutions were so overflowed that the provision of maximal care to every single individual was compromised. The effective and equal access to healthcare has therefore quickly become a central preoccupation of many governments, drawing on some dramatic first-hand experiences.
On that, I will say that if the global health crisis has been a synonym for many negative impacts, it has also been a precious opportunity to rethink carefully the existing narrative of programmatic and progressive rights – such as the right to health – needing no immediate attention, nor realisation. This narrative held predominantly by some Western democracies ever since the adoption of the UN International Covenants, has been unduly weakening the universal and indivisible stance of Human Rights. Needless to say, in adhering to that dangerous narrative, planning for and prioritizing health access, resources and system capabilities is undermined. This, in turn, contributes to the difficult and insufficient responses of some governments that have been witnessed. May the victims of inadequate infrastructures due to an obsolete distinction between rights serve as a poignant reminder: social, cultural and economic rights need be readily available to all.
Equally interesting is the toll taken on a whole other range of Human Rights – an international system built up in last 75 years on the legacy of victory of antifascist forces in Europe and elsewhere. Numerous individual freedoms have also suffered limitations, often as a direct result of actions taken to promote and ensure the right to life and the right to health for the most vulnerable. Indeed, people’s freedom of movement, that of religion (external dimension), that of assembly and association, as well as their procedural rights – only to name a few – have all been greatly affected during the crisis.
Of course voices have raised their discontent at those restrictions put in place to mitigate the crisis, considered by many to be too incisive and too manifold when cumulated. But despite an apparent clash between two groups of interests protected by different rights, the resolution which has emerged from the approaches followed by most countries is very telling. In fact, a balancing exercise revealed that protecting the right to health and to life of the minority of people ought simply to be considered predominant in comparison to the other individual freedoms and rights of the majority. This reasoning, grounded in solidarity and the protection of minorities and vulnerable persons, is in fact very encouraging in an era of growing individualism combined with overwhelming challenges which will certainly require peoples to unite against them.
Nevertheless, this does not take away from the fact that the full and optimal enjoyment of Human Rights has generally been seriously affected as many interests have been caught in the crossfire of the fight against Coronavirus’ harmful effects. Moreover, the crisis has also created some divides amongst European countries. This is because the sanitary emergency has caused for precarious contexts of resources shortages and sometimes unfruitful cooperation, even shift in alliances.
This has naturally brought about separate criticisms and questioning of the EU cooperation strategy and security arrangements. In that sense, growing expectations are felt for the EU to uphold and promote its fundamental values including the rule of law, solidarity, non-discrimination and antifascist line.
Vice-PresidentSchinas is well aware of that reality and reiterates the EU’s unalterable commitment to peaceful cooperation, human dignity, liberty, equality and solidarity in these troubled times. He further ensures that the most recent security strategies led by the Union do not – and never will – eat away at the protection of fundamental rights. What is more, whilst the EU’s arrangements can be seen as slightly ‘under attack’ currently, the VP feels that rather than seeing this period as a high-stakes test on EU democracies it should be seen as an opportunity to take a bigger stand than ever for the European common values and call for strengthened multilateralism. This necessities constructive reciprocal and respectful active engagement with the EU Mediterranean and eastern European neighbourhood.
All that is because it is not too difficult to imagine that the aftermath of the C-19 crisis can open several paths of new dynamics in international relations. Yet, as it cannot be stressed enough, an upcoming change in the conception of relations between nations could be decisive for numerous other contemporary challenges – namely: migration crisis, armed conflicts, climate change. While one of the paths could consist in an increase in protectionism and nationalist attitudes, another one would involve, on the contrary, a shift towards reinforced cooperation and enhanced solidarity. The latter outward approach, advocated by the EU Vice-President and believed to be the best hope for the future, is one deeply enshrined in the antifascist legacy and the very raison d’être of the Union.
Above all, at the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Victory Day, Excellency Schinas reminds us with much humbleness that the journey for safeguarding Human Rights is one that is perpetually underway.
Metternich: The visionary reconstructor of Europe and champion of conservatism
Klemens Von Metternich early life and orthodox ideas
Klemens Von Metternich was born on May 15, 1773, into the House of Metternich, a German noble family that originates from Rhineland. He was the son of a diplomat that had served at the Imperial court of Treves.
At the age of 15, he started studying law at the University of Strasbourg while getting more familiar with the concept of conservatism. In 1792 he was attending the University of Mainz, again at the faculty of law where his conservative ideas flourished, promoting traditional imperial institutions emphasizing the necessity of prosperity and stability in Europe.
Klemens Von Metternich is considered to be a controversial figure in international affairs due to his ideas of obstructionism, while some critics of him go as far as call him an enemy of freedom. He was a harsh critic of the French Revolution and its consequences and he dreaded the ideas of liberalism and nationalism that emerged after it.
On the other hand, he is praised for his vision of peace in Europe by holding on to the traditional monarchical systems that were the only way to establish peace and prosperity in his view. Thanks to Metternich, Europe established itself as a dominant economic and military power of the 19th century while reviving again the European values of stability and development for its European citizens.
The French Revolution
In 1789, amidst the French Revolution, Klemens Von Metternich expressed his dissatisfaction with the situation in France, calling the revolution a “hateful time” for Europe. His statements came when most of the French nobility was executed in France and there was a huge concern growing among the European powers that the situation would spread to the whole of Europe.
Soon enough, Metternich’s concerns turned out to be true, as France sunk into a period of political turmoil. In 1794, the king of France Louis the XVI was executed spreading chaos among the country. The so-called “Reign of Terror” was established where thousands of French citizens were executed.
The French Revolution brought out views and ideas of liberalism and nationalism that contradicted the traditional systems that ruled Europe. Metternich resented these ideas. He was more focused on the idea of the European Enlightenment. He understood clearly that to provide tranquility and stability in Europe, certain fundamental laws needed to be established for Europe to function properly.
He pointed out that aspects of religion and morality should be the primary necessities to co-govern with natural laws. His ideal system for Europe was a monarchical system that would co-share power with other classes of European society. Metternich’s goal was to prevent any further revolutions and uprisings in Europe, however, his plan was briefly jeopardized by the man that threatened to destroy everything he believed in.
Napoleon Bonaparte: Metternich’s political nemesis
Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s most prestigious general at that time, re-emerged as France’s savior promising to save the French revolution and ending France’s political turmoil. In 1804, Napoleon became the emperor of France. However, he was never recognized by any monarch in Europe.
The Great Powers of Europe, fearing that the effects of the French Revolution will backfire to them, decided to invade France and restore the reign of King Louis XVI. However, this act gave justification to Napoleon to declare war on the European powers by proclaiming that this was just a defensive measure to preserve the French Revolution.
At first, Metternich viewed Napoleon with great interest, mentioning that he was the only one capable of providing discipline to a troubled France. An extraordinary man with practical knowledge about the common life of the citizens. However, his praise came with some precautions about Napoleon. He thought that he was a very practical and strong man but only if he was born in a different age. He did not find his abilities suitable for the age they were in.
Metternich was appointed as the Austrian Ambassador in France in 1806. By that time Napoleon had managed to defeat Spain, Prussia, and Austria making his advances to the Russian Empire. It was at that point that Metternich decided to use his diplomatic skills to keep Austria “breathing” long enough until Napoleon would be dethroned. His plans accelerated when he became Austria’s Foreign Minister in 1809.
At the same year he became a Foreign Minister, Metternich decided to show his diplomatic skills by arranging the marriage of Napoleon with Marie Louise the daughter of the Austrian Emperor, Francis I. With this maneuver, he managed to convince Napoleon that Austria would be a close ally of him, while in reality, he was just buying time for Austria and the remaining great powers to come up with a plan to dethrone Napoleon. He didn’t have to wait long.
In 1812, Napoleon marched towards Russia. Certain for his victory, a naive Napoleon did not see how big of an obstacle Russia would be. While advancing to Moscow he captured an empty city that was set on fire, while the Russians retreated to the east. With his lines of supply being cut off and a devastating Russian winter approaching them, Napoleon decided to retreat, looking for gold at the surrender of Russia but receiving only copper.
In the meantime, Metternich put his plan on the motion. With Napoleon’s army retreating and being chased by the Russians, he convinced the remaining Great Powers to give a devastating blow to Napoleon. In 1813, Napoleon was defeated in Leipzig by the armies of Russia, England, Prussia, and Austria. Napoleon was imprisoned at the island of Elbe in the Mediterranean Sea. However, he managed to escape and rallied up soldiers that were loyal to him but again he was defeated for a second time in 1815, in the famous battle of Waterloo in Belgium. Metternich was crowded as a hereditary Prince of the Austrian Empire. The only man that stood against his ideal formation of Europe was defeated.
The Vienna Congress
The year 1815, saw Metternich at the peak of his power. He had become a key figure in the plan to dethrone Napoleon, with his excellent diplomatic skills and his determination to steer Europe into the path of stability where Kings governed and people were governed. At the Congress, he made his points very clear for the beginning. He believed that the only way to ensure peace in the continent was to bring the Great powers together so that they could prevent any large European War to escalate again.
Metternich’s policies were based on two principles. One being the protection of historical traditional institutes such as the Church, the dynastic monarchies, and the essence of aristocratic privilege and the second was the establishment of a new vision of international balance in the continent of Europe. Instead of punishing France for the Napoleonic wars, he suggested including them in the table. With that move Metternich showed his true European face, putting the future of his continent above any nationalist notions.
The success of the Congress was inevitable. While including France at the Council of the Great Powers, Europe started to become more stable. The Council that included England, Russia, France, Austria, and Prussia agreed to prevent any further revolutions and political uprising in Europe. All the disputes between the powers were resolved with diplomacy which gave them all leverage to re-organize Central Europe in a more simple way to avoid any internal intense rivalries.
Contributions to Europe and modern diplomacy
Klemens Von Metternich was viewed by many people as a great man and a true European citizen who managed to sustain a united European front for almost 100 years. Despite some minor uprising after the Vienna Congress, Metternich was a solid diplomat whose vision about Europe became a reality.
However, he is also viewed as an oppressor of freedom. His despise for liberal and nationalist movements made him an “enemy” of the common people. What Metternich was more afraid of about these movements was the potential disruption inside the Austrian Empire that was made up by a multinational coalition of 11 nations. He did not want to see the Empire being torn apart. He went as far as suppressing any suspicious uprisings in Germany where there was a lot of revolutionary activity, by censoring books and newspapers and installing secret police spies that would infiltrate universities to arrest any suspected revolutionaries.
On one hand, he has been a symbol of oppression but that is not a judgment that represents him. He was a great man and a man with a vision for Europe. Numerous times he mentioned that he felt more European than Austrian, putting the needs of Europe above the nation. In his memoirs, he wrote about the unfair judgment that he received but also mentioned how wrong those people were. “Old Europe is at the beginning of the end and new Europe has not yet begun its existence, and between the end and the beginning, there will be chaos. In a hundred years, historians will judge me quite differently than do all those who pass judgment on me today.”
Indeed, 100 years later historians acknowledged the wisdom and the vision of Klemens Von Metternich. After the devastating consequences of WWI and WWII, his diplomatic ideas that kept Europe at peace were missed and Europe realized that the failed liberal system will open the door to a nationalist and fascist system that will doom the whole continent.
History tends to repeat itself and while our world is more connected now and more liberal the shadows of nationalist far-right movements lure Europe. This aspect, combined with failed liberal policies result in dissatisfaction of the masses and without order, chaos would erupt as it did hundreds of years ago. Metternich’s contributions to modern diplomacy and the history of Europe are remarkable. His ideas flourished after WWII with the creation of the European Union, a system that might not share the same conservative ideas as he did, but surely contributed to the prosperity of the continent.
His ideas of European stability and control of power are more relevant now with the new crisis that the EU is facingand soon enough the European Union will have to rethink Metternich’s ideas for the neo-liberal system to survive, otherwise, there will be only room for nationalistic far-right movements that threaten the dream of the EU by returning to failed protectionism measures and policies.
Democratic Backsliding in the Visegrad Four: Examining the Illiberal Turn
The initial years of the post-communist era reflected a promising beginning of the consolidation of democracy in the Visegrad Four countries. Slovakia, the only exception to this regional trend of democratic consolidation under Mečiarism, also showed signs of successful transition with the revival of democracy after the 1998 elections. However, in the last few years, with the rise of eurosceptics, ultra-nationalists and populists, the democratic model has been facing grave challenges in these countries. Besides attacking the opposition, students’ organisations and NGOs, the conservative leadership in these countries, have also passed regressive reforms in media, constitution, as well as the judiciary. These attacks and reforms are aimed at strengthening the power of eurosceptic populist leaders, and thereby reducing any chances of Eurocentric opposition in the future. But why, despite initial years of promising success, democratic consolidation failed in the V4 countries? This essay argues that the challenges to the democratic consolidation in these post-communist countries have been a result of myriad local, national and international factors at economic, political and social levels.
Primarily, the membership in the EU, which was a major foreign policy objective of the new political elite post-1989, had raised numerous expectations among the citizens in these countries. But after the EU membership in May 2004, when those expectations still seemed a distant dream for the citizens in these countries, the disappointment with the EU membership’s promises rose throughout the region. This disappointment soon became a fertile ground on which the conservative section of the political elite mobilised their support, which became evident with the victory of nationalistic and eurosceptic parties throughout the region.
This discontentment with the Western European model was made further worse by the economic crises of 2008-9 and the subsequent Euro debt crisis of 2011. Contrary to expectations that the EU membership will be a guarantor of economic prosperity and improved standards of living, the V4 countries had to suffer immensely as a result of these crises which primarily resulted because of the loopholes in other countries. Furthermore, the subsequent burden of reforms with adoption of EU’s austerity policies aimed at stabilising the European économies post-crises, also proved costly for these countries, and hence furthered their apathy towards the integrationist model of Brussels.
Post 2015, the Refugee Crisis, resulting due to the massive influx of illegal migrants into Europe from politically unstable areas of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, further fuelled the simmering anti-EU attitudes among the V4 countries. Though only Hungary was directly affected by the wave of these migrants, all V4 countries reflected a response which was reminiscent of classical xenophobia and exclusive nationalism. Despite these countries officially voting against Brussels’ proposal of obligatory refugee quotas, and opposing the financial aid given to Turkey following EU-Turkey deal to stop refugees from entering the EU, the conservative media and politicians in these countries left no stone unturned to show a face of refugees that immediately mobilised the people to vote populist demagogues to power at the cost of ruling out the Eurocentric federalists.
Finally, another important, and often overlooked reason for the failed democratic consolidation in the V4 countries has been their lack of historical experience with democracy. As a result of this lacked democratic experience, people in these countries failed to develop a democratic culture in a few decades post-1989, and instead found it easy to turn back to their familiar models.
However, despite all the gloomy prospects of democratic consolidation in the V4 countries, the region is not the only aberration. The rise of Euroscepticism, nationalism, and populism has been on the rise throughout the continent, which became evident with Brexit and the rise of conservative parties, like National Front and Alternative for Germany, among others. Therefore, it is imperative for the EU that these occasional setbacks in few countries must not hinder its vision of greater European integration. Because, any void created by declining role of Brussels in the Visegrad region will immediately be filled by Russia, which is craving to regain its influence in its ‘near-abroad.’
Moreover, the recent experiences from Afghanistan, Libya, Algeria and elsewhere, also made it clear that the quick imposition of the democratic model is not the universal solution for discrete problems across the world. The fact that the evolution of democracy took centuries of deliberate transformations, and occasional violent conflicts, in England, France, USA and elsewhere, must be kept in mind while assessing the democratic consolidation in any part of the world. Expecting successful transition and consolidation of democracy in the V4 countries, without keeping in mind that it has been only a few decades since these countries embarked on this painful transition, is in itself problematic.
Nonetheless, the post-1989 transition has also successfully contributed to transforming a considerable section of the population in these countries, who now show major disliking towards any non-democratic model. Therefore, even if the current situation of the V4is not a pleasant one, the big picture coming post-1989 is a reflection of a successful break with the ‘Other’ past.
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