Europe is facing a crisis of integration. The process of European integration, which started after WWII, is not irreversible and the existence of the European Union should not be taken for granted. What is at the heart of the current European crisis is not the flawed institutional architecture or the lack of political leadership, but rather it is the ongoing transformation of the liberal democratic regimes in Europe. This transformation, usually described as “the rise of populism,” is not the outcome of the emergence of anti-democratic alternatives in Europe. Rather, it is an unintended consequence of the successes of five particular revolutions that have shattered the Western world since 1968.
The first to consider is the social revolution of the 1960s, which destroyed the intellectual foundations of ideological, utopia driven politics and put the individual and his rights and freedoms at the centre of politics. The second is the market revolution of the 1980s that de-legitimised the state as an economic actor. Third are the Central European revolutions of 1989 that reconciled the social revolution of the 1960s (resisted by the Right) and the market revolution of the 1980s (rejected by the Left), and gave rise to the belief that liberal democracy is the end of history and the natural state of humanity. Fourth, is the information revolution brought about by the spread of the Internet, and finally, fifth is the demographic revolution in Europe that made threatened majorities the major actors in European politics.
In their early stages, all five revolutions were critically important for the deepening of the European democratic experience. The social revolutions of the 1960s gave new meaning to the idea of the free individual. The market revolution of the 1980s contributed to the global spread of democratic regimes and the collapse of communism. The revolutions of 1989, without being the end of history, succeeded in reconciling liberalism and democracy, which for two centuries were at odds in Europe. The Internet revolution gave a new impulse to civic activism and democratic participation. And the decline of birth rates and the rise of life expectancy in Europe in the last fifty years contributed significantly to the de-radicalization of European politics.
If it is in the early stages of these revolutions that the deepening of the democratic experience can be found, it is in the tails of these same five revolutions that one can find the forces affecting the populist transformation of democracy in Europe. The social revolutions of the 1960s led to the decline of a shared sense of purpose. Identity began to colonise public discourse: private identity, sexual identity and cultural identity. The market revolution of the 1980s made societies wealthier than ever, but it also broke the positive connection between the spread of democracy and the spread of equality. The new mobility of capital and capital owners broke the contract between the people and their elites giving birth to the new offshore elites. The revolution of 1989 was the revolution of normalcy. But by declaring democracy the normal state of society, it contributed to the depolitization of European democracies, weakening their will and ability to defend themselves.
The Internet revolution is the one that opened the possibility for direct democracy and active public participation in politics, but in reality it simultaneously opened up the possibility of fragmenting the public space and destroying the discursive base of liberal democracy. While the Internet revolution empowered people to stand against those in power, it did not contribute to strengthening the deliberative nature of the democratic process.
Least noticed, though still significantly important, were the effects of the demographic revolution. It is often a kind of ‘demographic imagination’ that shapes European politics today; the general public fears that their societies are ageing and shrinking, and they fear that immigrants or ethnic minorities are overtaking their countries and threatening their way of life. Gallup International’s recent survey— Hope and Despair in the World— demonstrates that prosperous Europeans are among the most pessimistic citizens of the planet. And the economic crisis has not weakened— but rather strengthened— the appeal of identity politics. Threatened majorities – those who have everything and who fear everything – have emerged as the major force in European politics. Liberal democracy as we know it is over. What Europe faces today is the need to re-negotiate the balance between democratic majoritarianism and liberal constitutionalism.
The paradox of the current European disintegration is rooted in the fact that while there is no major political or social actor that openly advocates the disintegration of the EU, the Union can easily become the hostage of the unacceptability of the current status quo. What we should fear is a vicious circle—namely that in responding to populist pressure, some governments will decide to please the public by introducing policies that openly contradict the objectives of European integration, and that the advance of such policies will make the EU less effective and less credible. And the more the Union loses credibility, the further the opposition to it can be expected to increase. Europe has been witness to this dynamic more than once in the twentieth century.