How to fight the dangers of illiberal & closed Europe

By Kristina Persson 

It is a tragic irony, that in a time when we need Europe and European cooperation the most, we fail to get the citizens support for doing what we need to do, like stop climate warming, manage migration and integration, fight inequality and match the expansion of AI and biotech with social rules and investments.

The challenges are many and shared.

The long-term governance within the nation-states is weak and the situation is aggravated by a growing support for right-wing and xenophobic nationalists. The risks remind us of the 1930s.

We depend on each other in order to meet the challenges of our time – we must cooperate. But our citizens (approximately 1/5) vote for parties who do not believe in cooperation or in peoples’ equal rights and value.

How could this happen?

In order to fight the threats against our liberal democracy, we need to understand why.

I believe there are, three different categories of explanation:

The first is a reaction against the rapid expansion of what could be called the new modernity that has expanded during the last 30 years: Values and lifestyles, globalization, open borders and a strengthened role and rights for women and for sexual minorities.

The second explanation is political: Neoliberal policies lead to increasing gaps both in power and economic resources. On top of this came another and completely different political wave, meaning that policies must respect the limits of nature.  Nature is of a more fundamental value than man. An academic thesis from Uppsala shows that the rejection and negation of climate warming has a psychological aspect: White males with authoritarian values don´t accept this loss of supremacy.

The people voting for parties like the Sweden-democrats do not like the development over the last 20-30 years. They do not feel like winners – they feel threatened by it. They experience a loss of sovereignty, a loss of faith in the future, even if they have jobs and a decent life, which normally is the case in Sweden, and they blame the immigrants for it. But they are not all racists, who cannot change.

The third explanation, why 1/5 of Europe´s citizens vote for parties whose policies would lead to pure disasters, is that they do not trust in the so-called elite, meaning among others, the representatives for the old parties.And, I would say that in one very important sense they are quite right:The old parties, who have dominated the political arenas for a long time, have failed to govern our societies in a way that means inclusion of all and a sustainable development in the future. They have failed to make people understand the nature of the societies we live in and more importantly they have failed to address the great challenges before us. This creates an empty space of insecurity that the populists fill up with simplified explanations and slogans.

The fourth explanation is that the liberal elite, most of us taking part in the political debate, have taken democracy for granted without realising what it takes to defend democracy as an ideology. Democracy is not only a constitutional model, it is an ideology – values. We have not used our tremendous resources to explain and discuss the changes taking place, inform and enlighten people about i.e. the European Union or the value of immigration. We have let the xenophobes dominate the popular dialogue and the media reporting.

The fifth explanation is that we have not developed or delivered any political narrative that gives meaning to the time we live in and conveys a feeling of trust in the future. Even worse, we have not delivered convincing results.Trust in politicians and political parties has gone down all over Europe. There is a gap between what political leaders say about sustainability, equality and a good life for everyone and what is actually done.

We who believe in the liberal democracy, in inclusion and cooperation across borders, we have not tried hard enough. We have not developed an adequate governance, including a strong pro-European stance in order to meet the great challenges of our time. People notice, not always intellectually, but they feel it. And,what is equally important, those who never even would think ofvoting for a populist or extreme-right party, also become negative to the democratic parties and their leaders. And as a result, they become weak defenders of the traditional parties.

So, what should we do?

This is a short and simple list – it is also what I am myself busy doing in my country, Sweden:

  • Take the global challenges seriously, including the threat from the authoritarian nationalists. Implement Agenda 2030, the curve of increasing CO2 emissions must be bent down very soon. Engage in important reforms like sustainable financial markets, new tax-systems, life-long education and a just transition.
  • This also means that we need to improve our capacity to govern and adjust the organizations, institutions and structures to the needs of today and tomorrow. We need better politics!
  • Invest in popular education and dialogue with people about the challenges of our time and the possibilities.
  • Strengthen European cooperation and other international cooperation, which is part of the better governance needed. If you cannot get all 27 EU-members with you – which you cannot! – use the instrument of enhanced cooperation between 9 nations or more.

A well-known European once said, ”We know what to do, but we do not know how to win elections having done it”… I say TRY! Be serious, be idealistic, defend what needs to be defended. We all would like to be able to look our children and grandchildren in their eyes and say that we did as much as we could. When we still could.

Kristina Persson is a Swedish politician of the Social Democrats and served as Minister for Nordic Cooperation and Minister for Strategic Development, under Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, from October 2014 to May 2016. She started her career in the Ministry of Finance in 1971, moved to the Secretariat for Future Studies, and then spent the 1980s in the Swedish trade union movement. During the 1990s she was an MP and then a MEP, before becoming a County Governor and Deputy Governor of the Swedish central bank. From 2007 she founded and led the one of Sweden’s most important think tanks called Global Challenge.















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