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Is European liberalism in trouble?

  • Published at 12:04 am August 1st, 2019
Europe
Photo: REUTERS

As the right rises, Europe is changing

There can be a difference of opinion about the degree and direction, but there cannot be a denial of the fact that Europe is changing economically, socially, and politically.

There is a gradual rise of nationalist and more hard line politics challenging post-WWII European ideology of individual freedom, broad-mindedness, inclusiveness, often described as “liberalism” and “multi-culturalism.”

The formation of the EU was based on a few important ideological standards. All did not go well with many member countries when they failed to perform as expected, economically.

The movement of people from different member countries gave birth to the notion that people from other countries were taking up jobs and related income from both white and blue-collar workers.

Many started believing that countries were better off economically pre-EU than in the post-EU scenario. Falling income was a real concern for middle and lower-middle-class European.

Many centre-left, liberal, conservative, and social-democratic political parties are losing popularity among voters, giving rise to the right-wing, centre-right, green, and overall nationalist parties, often coined as “populist.”

Changes have been evident for the last few years on the issue of the refugee influx, economic slowdown, and perceived threat in future trade relations. Brexit, to many, is only the beginning, not the end of anti-EU ideology that will reshape the future of Europe.

Thus, the question raised by Russian President Putin about the strength of European ideology like “liberalism” and “multi-culturalism,” has some weight, no doubt.

There is growing censorship on individual freedom of expression. On one hand, there is undeniable fear of terrorism, religious extremism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. On the other hand, there is a rise in social media and access to information technology.

Many European countries and societies are not as liberal as they used to be post-WWII. Many countries wish to be selective. There is also the rise of white supremacy and religious bigotry. So, when Putin declared that liberalism became “obsolete” in Europe, he has a point.

However, many European intellectuals wish to see Putin’s comments as propaganda against European ideology. They think it is a heinous attempt by Russia to demean European openness and multi-culturalism; to create more division among EU member states.

The United States is very critical about illegal immigration and border crossing, forgoing their earlier openness.

China’s record of suppressing religious minorities and obstructing individual freedom is not helpful either. The rise of Hinduism in India and right-wing politics is re-writing post-independent secular ideology. So, Putin has thrown in a very strong case.

Many countries are strongly against opening borders for refugees. Many countries openly or secretly wish to receive refugees with specific backgrounds -- skin colour, religious beliefs, etc.

Many populist leaders have associated refugees with negative national economic consequences. Even more, consider the refugee influx as a safety and security threat.

There are growing tendencies that do not support the so-called European liberalism.

The popular support against accepting Asian and African refugees defies the “push factor” of the refugee crisis, where people have lost their assets and income-earning opportunities due to destructive wars in their homeland often due to steps by Western countries and allies.

Populists like to co-relate refugee influx with opportunity-seeking, the “pull factor,” often believing that refugees are attracted by a higher living standard that offers social security and health care.

Interestingly, the major burden of refugees is taken by many poor countries with limited resources like Bangladesh. These countries are praised by Western countries, but the same example was not followed by them.

No doubt, there are still a few exceptional European leaders like Angela Merkel. Merkel is an example of openness and liberalism. But her political ideology is not enjoying as much support as alternative ideologies.

Merkel’s voters are shaking inside -- either going green or right-wing. This is the pattern in many EU member countries as well.

European liberalism and multi-culturalism were considered the ideal for many African and Asian countries. It is hoped that the moral standard will not lose its ground.

Liberalism did not just evolve over the years. There is learning from thousand years of brutal experience behind it. Democracy without liberalism will not flourish and achieve all it wishes for.

European countries have developed liberalism and multi-culturalism from the guilt of having oppressed people and looted resources from Asian and African colonies. Thus, the utopia of an ideal state encouraged individual freedom and accepted diversity of social practice, and adopted different cultures.

Now, these basic ideologies are under scrutiny. 

Moreover, people are more and more under surveillance, under constant supervision in the name of security. Putin has hit the right button. There is an issue of eroding liberal values, and rise in racism -- not only in the EU, but many countries globally.

It is high time for the global debate to explain, strengthen, and enforce the ideologies of liberalism and multi-culturalism for the overall benefit of mankind. 

ASM Shahidul Haque is a development worker.