It is almost ten years now since the beginning of the Great Recession, and both the European Union as a whole and its individual Member States are still struggling. The Greek debt crisis is not over, the rift between the western and the eastern regions of the Union is more visible, populist Euroscepticism is still very much present, and relations with Russia are in a deep crisis of trust while the US under Trump is less enthusiastic about the European Union project and more particularly about a new division of costs in NATO. This list could be continued to include questions such as a democratic deficit within the EU, the weak architecture of the euro, migration (from and to EU countries), and of course Brexit. But what is very important to note is that current conflicts stemming from crises of different types are predominantly fought as cultural conflicts, as conflicts of values or about values. To translate these conflicts into socio-economic language appears very difficult.
The internal troubles of the EU are, however, an embodiment of a more complex crisis, which might be labelled in a somewhat clichéd way ‘the crisis of Western hegemony’ or perhaps less popularly ‘de-Westernisation’.1 This crisis is not only economic and demographic but of course also political and ideological. In every critical juncture of the EU crisis different elements can be found of the systemic crisis of Western hegemony. The world is moving towards a new structural organisation while the Western idea of the cohabitation of market economy and liberal democracy is being challenged by those on the margins. It seems fair to say that we have entered the era of ‘hybrids’, which mix Western values, institutions, and practices with local or traditional ones. The market system, or capitalism, still organises the global system, but political and value systems are becoming more diverse, in some cases more authoritarian, illiberal, or simply not liberal in different ways within this broad category (Putin’s Russia is one example, but China is another, while Turkey is still different, as is Venezuela, etc.). It is this political diversity that might be seen as a consequence of the varieties of capitalism and of local cultural influences that are making the core of the EU more anxious about its future, direction, and purpose.
Indeed, the equation, ‘market plus liberal democracy means prosperity and peace’, which is being called into question, is a pillar of so called ‘European values’. Its Eurocentrism as a composite part of Western hegemony (or hegemony of the core) is seen in a hidden, unspoken preference for sameness as well as the belief that this sameness is possible. The liberal vision of the Atlantic European Union, then, emphasises its place in the world based on the idea of a new interpretation of international relations. Peace in Europe is to be guaranteed by a rejection of classic great power politics, an emphasis on shared values and, conventionally, by the redistributive policies which aimed to reduce the biggest economic discrepancies between Member States – in terms of economic inequalities, or centre and periphery relations, in the name of development.
Unfortunately, the world of ideas and ideologies does not match the reality. The EU’s ambition to promote its vision of the continent based on a new type of international relations was tempered by its security and defence dependency on the US, and, on a more general level, by the contradictions of capitalism. There were plans to create an independent European security system already in the 1980s and later in the early 1990s as part of the euphoria accompanying the end of the Cold War. But these plans were never realised and the EU continues to be a power based on words, on a moral rhetoric that rests on past memories, which has repeatedly failed to prevent war in the continent and beyond it – as in the war in Yugoslavia, in Kosovo, the bombing of Serbia, and more recently the Ukrainian crisis.
Moreover, as Gurminder Bhambra argues, the ideal of peaceable Europe is limited by the imagined boundaries of the EU – conflicts and wars outside Europe, such as the Algerian War at the period of the birth of the European integration idea or more recently those in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are invisible and considered irrelevant.2
The same might be said of the socio-economic reality of the EU as manifested in different and often undeclared hierarchies that reflect a very specific division of labour and distribution of power – in other words, the political economy of the European Union.
These failures or inconsistent cracks in the European liberal narrative became more visible with the economic crisis. We need to be aware today that we are facing an uncertain period of transition whose key question will be to create an international order that enables the relatively peaceful coexistence of politically and culturally diverse great powers, such as are today positioning themselves outside Western hegemony and its universalist liberal canon. In a way, this also means that the premises of postmodernism – that is, diverse overlapping narratives instead of a single totalising one – are being put to the test of the new boundaries of the emerging order. The liberal and universalist equation – that market plus liberal democracy equals prosperity, peace and freedom for all and everywhere – will be merely one outlook alongside others, because the West has lost the authority of a hegemon to promote this equation throughout the world. However, questions of political pluralism and diversity are doubtless also problems confronting the European Union internally. We should not forget this, for even if we abhor conservative and reactionary sensibilities they do tell us something of what society wants or is afraid of in the present: it is not purely about the past. Simple suppression without understanding is not an effective way of dealing with these differences.
Unfortunately, EU policies are still very reliant on its traditional universalism, which is paradoxically the child of the imperialist designs of the colonial and imperial European past. This old mode of thinking, however, increasingly represents a risk for Europe’s future – simply because it is not able realistically and with fresh eyes to see beyond the old hegemony. It does not discern and evaluate new shifts in the gravity of power in the world, a shift towards Asia in terms of economy and demography as well as a clear decline of the US – a decline which is not just economic but mainly cultural as demonstrated by a paralysis of human capital needed to intellectually manage democratic politics and the role of world leader or hegemon.
Why is the imperial universalism of so-called ‘European values’ a problem for the EU and can new common frameworks be found for cooperation and prevention of conflicts internally as well as externally?
The EU was historically developed as a Western European economic project associated with economic recovery in the shadow of Cold War system competition. In its origins European integration was a direct consequence of the imperial overstretch of powerful Western European nations, which led to the organically connected First and Second World Wars. Starting with what we can call a predominantly Atlantic core (Benelux, France, and Britain), economic integration expanded to Italy, and later to Southern Europe (Spain, Portugal, and Greece). West Germany was positioned more continentally than these largely Atlantic states, but its membership was the key to peaceful cooperation due to the historical French-German struggle for hegemony on the continent.
The general context of European integration was not just the Cold War, but (political) decolonisation between 1945 and 1975, which importantly framed its birth. It is the side of a story that is much less about values and more about a strategy to maintain global relevance by means of pragmatic cooperation and peace within the continent. Today, this aim is more distant as the EU increasingly loses its economic and demographic power, while its ideological hegemony is shaken.
Finally, it should not be forgotten that the EU is internally based on the deep and interdependent relations among nation-states and thus is a component part of international relations and of global politics. This also means that while these Member States can agree that being a part of the EU is in their interest, they still have their own interests. And this makes it extremely difficult to agree on an authentic European interest, which is however needed for a global strategy. Furthermore, national interests are not necessarily the objective, but rather a set of pragmatic aims in which cultural and ideological perceptions merge with myths and geography. The EU is also a community of unequals, economically, demographically, and ideologically; there are huge differences in terms of power distribution (for example, between Germany and Malta) and the ability to promote one’s own interest in the EU and the world.
The end of the Cold War opened the way to the next two enlargements, in other words expansions, of the European Union (with this name since 1993). Two diverse groups joined while the EU was moving from economic to political integration. The first was Finland, Austria, and Sweden (former European Free Trade Association (EFTA) members), which in a sense changed their neutral status. Then former countries of the socialist bloc were admitted to the EU in two waves followed by Croatia. These two EU expansions indeed had very different frameworks and socio-economic and security implications.
I will focus on the ‘Eastern’ group to highlight what is wrong with the Eurocentric vision of Europe. It was indeed the second, so-called ‘Eastern’ enlargement of the EU (unfortunately, this name is not merely an objective geographical category) that underlined the universalistic appeal of European integration and in fact once again reproduced Eurocentric and Euro-Orientalist approaches to the newly integrated periphery. The overall narrative of enlargement was based on the idea of Europeanisation and neoliberal transformation, and so the candidates had to follow the model, accept the rules, and become EU-European, since otherwise they would not be considered European in terms of geography and culture. It was indeed a new confirmation of what Milan Kundera had criticised in his 1984 essay The Tragedy of Central Europe, that is, the ‘unbearable reality’ that Western Europe did not accept Central Europe as a composite and organic part of its civilisational framework. Thus Western Europe did not feel the same loss as the Central Europeans felt when the Iron Curtain divided them.3
The EU was one of the most visible enforcers of the neoliberal transformation of its eastern wing, which after the Great Recession introduced new troubles. ‘New Europe’ was frustrated by how distant the prosperity was that market + democracy were supposed to bring. This narrative badly undermined the EU’s prestige for the Eastern periphery due to low salaries, precarious living standards, increasing social inequality, corruption, and other maladies of peripheral capitalism. The Great Recession typically called the equation itself into question within the uneven network of relations and dependencies in the EU. The frustration turned nativist with features of economic nationalism and post-democratic populism. The new nationalistic rhetoric should not come as such a surprise considering the historical ambiguity of the nationalism of small nations in Central and Eastern Europe and their key focus – an (of course, bourgeois) emancipatory struggle against the universalist empires of the past.
Samir Amin reminds us that Eurocentrism is a distortion, a paradigm which helps primarily to mask ‘real existing capitalism’ as he calls it.4 In practice, it means that the universalist recipes of Eurocentrism such as ‘market + democracy = prosperity’ or the idea of modernist ‘development’ in general do not jibe with the socio-economic reality. Instead, they make all complex societies chase after a dream based on the system that ensures that development and prosperity remain impossible. In other words, it helps not to see the real structures of capitalism and thus not understand that underdeveloped peripheral status is the other side of the coin of the developed capitalist centre. To be periphery has to do with the political economy of the centre; it is not any a culturalist construction or primarily the result of so-called ‘backwardness’. Power uses ideology in order not to be seen as it is; or, as Aníbal Quijáno put it, the power of Eurocentrism is that its promises make it seductive, and its true repressiveness remains in the background.5
The periphery can hardly become centre by adopting ‘European values’; it has to ideologically and culturally challenge the way capitalism operates. But this is exactly what none of the Central European conservatives want to do or even openly speak of. They have in common with many pro- European liberals a rejection of the idea that there is something profoundly wrong with the neoliberal capitalist system itself. None of them really wishes to challenge the system or to experiment with it. And if we consider the election results, these two currents have majority support even if this means increasing polarisation.
Although the universalist narrative of the liberal EU is a mask to cover up increasingly sharper inequalities generated by neoliberal capitalism, this does not mean that ideals of democracy, prosperity (not necessarily material or consumerist), and peace are invalid but that they must be interpreted from an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist or at least civic-emancipatory perspective. The same applies to liberalism, which is, in my view, an antipode of universalism. Indeed, universalism must be understood as a dangerous accomplice of imperialism. However, we now have to think about more immediate challenges within the existing world and European systems – it is only thus that we can turn away from the dangerous path of new conflict that would lead to the dissolution of the EU or to a global war.
The fault line between the western and eastern wings of the European Union is merely a local and specific embodiment of a more global problem. How can we, on its peripheries, deal with the political and cultural diversities generated by globalising capitalism? At a minimum, how can these diversities coexist under one umbrella without being destructive? Or, more radically, can the West live up to its liberal principles when facing its own global decline, considering that the struggle for hegemony has historically always been violent?
An example from outside the EU helps to focus the problem. EU expansion excluded its most important neighbour. Russia is a direct heir of the largest contiguous land-based empire in world history whose modern history is framed by peripherality and competitive relations with Western Europe (with this competition often located in Central and Eastern Europe). Russia’s historical rise involved a love-hate relationship with the idea of Europe, which, in turn, saw Russia as a ‘different’ distant relative or even the constitutive Other, as Ivar Neumann argues.6 However, Russia sees itself as a European nation, and its exclusion from the club based on a Eurocentric vision of EU-Europe has been understood in an increasingly bitter way. Today’s Russia has in part abandoned universalistic and Eurocentric Western values – that is, the linear idea of transformation as Westernisation, as another adaptation and acceptance of the normative sameness imposed by the West. This was partly a result of strategic thinking and partly an outcome of controversial transformation processes in historically peripheral Russia.
Two key Russian arguments are sovereignty and autonomy. The question of sovereignty is a new emphasis on the classical Westphalian idea, which has currently been undermined (by the politics of ‘promoting democracy’ and by the economic power of TNCs) without it being replaced by something structurally and functionally new. In this sense, Russia is a conservative actor, not an innovator or an openly revisionist power. The question of autonomy is not just a question of de-globalisation but is in fact also an emancipatory one when seen from the perspective of Otherness. It asserts the plurality of the world and the right of otherness, and rejects universal sameness. Largely misunderstood in the West, it is the latest example of historic Russian efforts at emancipation, which go back to Peter the Great and his policy of Westernisation.
This position means a partial or hybrid rejection of Western universality, including the EU idea of a liberal continent and of Europe. It offers the negotiated coexistence of particularities (the combination of Western ideas, practices, and institutions such as democracy, market, individual freedom, etc. with local ones such as centralisation, collectivism, or traditional authority). In this logic then, the problem is stated in a different way: under which common framework could such a coexistence of particularities exist and the latter be minimised?
Indeed, in one sense Russia is right. It was the imperfect Westphalian system that made it possible for very different states to work together internally. There was a clear demarcation line, which gave birth to state sovereignty and to the still anarchic nature of modern international relations. In short, this was a system which was not essentially universalist even when based on common rules of the game.
In the current discussions framed by the Great Recession and the political crisis of democracy, inclusivity has been seen as a solution for more visible social, economic, and political gaps that neoliberal capitalism – the only truly universal force – has created in different contexts and culturally different societies. This issue is very important for the internal structure of the European Union, but also for its external relationship to the world. Inclusivity cannot exist without de-neoliberalisation of the EU at its core and without a new emphasis put on bold and intelligent redistributive policies on the EU and national levels, something that is still a taboo even now that the neoliberal dogma is slowly dying. There can be no inclusivity without moving away from Eurocentrism towards more ‘pluriversal’ intellectual and political structures of coexistence.
Furthermore, the end of the ‘liberal order’ (or rather ‘the end of the unilateral moment’?) is followed by the idea of a multipolarity giving stronger voice to the hybridity of emerging powers such as China and India (and, of course, Russia) along with the West (USA, EU, and NATO). Such a development is not without risks because more centres of power will increase the anarchic aspect of international relations and threaten its stability. An alternative order is needed to define new common rules which cannot be abused and misused – as the US does for own purposes and interests. In short, multipolarity must be based on common rules to be followed. But I am sceptical that common rules will mean a universalist way of life or politics within different contexts. Globalisation did not usher in sameness despite the deeper connections; this means we cannot expect democracy to function in Bangladesh the way it does in Britain, nor that human rights will be seen and defined in Malaysia as it is in Germany, that feminist values in Nepal will have same content as in Spain, that Kenya will have the same interpretation of freedom and the individual as in Greece, etc. The decline of the West’s hegemony is inevitably connected to more pluriversal tolerance and to the West’s decreased capacity to influence the world’s internal cultural and political developments. Finally, Western, or Western-imported, violence has too often cast the West in a dubious light.
There is an alternative idea to the multipolar approach in the idea of pluralistic peace recently proposed by German authors Mathias Dembinski and Hans-Joachim Spanger.7 It is an interesting argument based on John Rawl’s political philosophy of liberalism and seeks to re-establish a relationship with hybrid Russia based on pragmatism and tolerance. In this anti-universalist argument, Russia is accepted as it is, while the West is to search for a basis of cooperation and common interests despite Russia’s different political and cultural make-up. It is a model based on the idea of a status quo with an emphasis on common rules such as non-expansion and the respect of fundamental human rights beyond other internal differences. But it also openly rejects the export of Western democracy as such. Dembinski and Spanger clearly say that the key is a liberal principle of tolerance within a common space of rules. This therefore means that the role of values in international politics must be renegotiated and changed. The idea that otherness must be changed into sameness in every corner of the planet must be abandoned. That idea is not only impossible but also deeply conflictual and too often counterproductive.
Chantal Mouffe made the same argument in 2005. She proposed that the only way to prevent a ‘clash of civilisations’ produced by the unilateralism of the US is to ‘take pluralism seriously instead of trying to impose one single model on the whole world’.8 And, as she put it, such a new multipolarity means the search for a multipolar equilibrium while recognising the pluralist character of the world. The same goes for the European Union as one of these poles. The EU internally consists of diverse cultures, languages, countries, and their interests, civilisational and religious influences, the political cultures under which national politics operate, and so on. Imperial/colonial efforts to achieve internal uniformity in the name of capitalist expansion is the death of Europe. As it was in the past.