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Robert Van Voren
© Jonas Petronis

Self-love is a balloon inflated with wind, whence tempests emerge when it has been pricked

Voltaire, 1747


Virtually no day passes without some shocking news. I am not referring to military conflicts, and natural disasters, including climate change, of which there is an abundance. I am referring to a completely new and dangerous phenomenon: the rise of mostly right-wing populist politics based on unfounded or unproven claims, distortions and outright lies. What started some two decades ago with the rise of Silvio Berlusconi as the unassailable political leader in Italy and his intermingling of economic and political power resulting in excesses and eventually serious challenges to the judicial system, has now become a global issue, at least in the Western world.

The political changes in Europe cannot be seen separately from the aftermath of the disintegration of the socialist block and the USSR in the early 1990s. The rather sudden liberation of two dozen countries gave rise to enormous hopes. Democracy seemed to be on a march to the ultimate victory over authoritarianism. The Yugoslav wars of 1991-1995 were of course disastrous to the population in the former Yugoslav republics, but also showed the inability of the European Union to act effectively and decisively with one voice. However, the military conflict was mostly considered an after-effect of socialist unitary rule that had kept national tensions and discord under the lid for too long.

Europe entered a completely new era. The main thrust was focused on the integration of formerly communist and socialist states, resulting in the enlargement of the European Union in 2004 and 2007. This was maybe politically and psychologically a very wise move, bringing a sense of stability and security to countries that were recovering from decades of Moscow domination, but was economically and culturally an enormous challenge of a scope never met before. The accession of the still young democracies of Spain and Portugal in 1986 had been much easier, as these countries were maybe economically behind, but socially and culturally much easier to integrate. Integrating former Warsaw Pact countries, and especially three former Soviet republics, who had not only been dictatorially ruled but had economies still at the beginning of the transition from centrally planned economies to free market ones, proved to be a huge challenge. The countries were by far not ready, large parts of the population sank into even further poverty and European integration also open the doors to massive emigration.

By the mid-2010s some of the countries, e.g. Latvia and Lithuania, had lost up to a third of the population. The brain drain was possibly larger than in East Germany before the building of the Berlin Wall, and had not only enormous economic consequences, but also political ones. Those who left were a crucial workforce, but also many were young and well-educated, and they were by definition less "Sovietized". They were the ones who should have strengthened civil society and democratic thought and behavior in their own countries, but by emigrating they left the country to the few who decided to make a stand and remain, to less-educated people who could not make it in Western Europe, as well as the older generations that had been raised and educated in the non-democratic period. In many of the countries this resulted in a shift in the political climate away from democracy and tolerance, and in countries like Latvia and Lithuania in a sort of "re-Sovietization".

In Germany the situation was no less complex, as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had been quickly swallowed up by its larger Western counterpart, with enormous economic demands, but also with huge social tensions. In formerly Eastern Germany large parts of the population felt ostracized, victimized by a sort of "victor's justice" during which many leading economic and political positions were taken over by West-Germans and Eastern Germans felt like second rate citizens within their own country. On top of that, the GDR was full of Soviet moles and former GDR Stasi operatives, who later turned out to be particularly handy in destabilizing the political situation e.g. during the migration crisis of 2016-2017.

The end of Communism in Europe led to an excessive feeling of self-gratification among Western politicians, who behaved as if only they knew what was right and how countries should be transformed. This was particularly evident in the more Eastern European countries, where members of the diaspora returned to "their country" and started calling the shots, even if they had been born and raised in the West and had never been in "their country" before. This feeling of being on the "right side of history" was no less evident among politicians of the European Union, and this led in my view to a political blandness in which the real political challenges of the new reality were more ignored than addressed.

In The Netherlands this political blandness showed itself in full glory after the assassination of the populist politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002, a killing that shocked the whole nation. Fortuyn had only recently entered politics and challenged the political constellation on The Netherlands that had been dominated by the same political parties since the early post-war period. He had a totally different style and raised questions that were never asked in public before, challenging the "holy houses" of the political establishment, e.g. the tensions caused by a multi-cultural society. Fortuyn was generally considered "right-wing", but was also openly and demonstratively gay and in a way illustrated the fact that things were shifting and old boxes did no longer respond to reality. When he was killed, all political parties, right and left, tried to show they also had "elements of Fortuynism" in their political program, either hoping to win votes or trying to prevent losing them. This led to a severe political crisis, because blandness became the norm and no politician dared to say openly he disagreed with Fortuyn's statements out of fear of losing political power. Political life in The Netherlands would never be the same, and the current dominance of the right-wing and anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders, often referred to as the "Dutch Mozart" because of his exuberant white hairs, is in my view a direct result of this.

In general terms, globalization sent shockwaves through the European continent. Over the past three decades the world had changed beyond recognition, not in the least because of a new technological revolution at least as significant as the industrialization at the end of the nineteenth century. While in the mid-1980s communication was still without internet, almost exclusively by "snail mail" (ordinate postal services), telegrams, telex and telephone connection through landlines, the technological revolution made a real globalization possible. This brought unimaginable possibilities, but also many challenges that were probably insufficiently addressed. Whole industries became redundant, the concept of a "job for life" where you remain with one company throughout your working life disappeared, mobility became the norm and opening of borders resulted in an influx of workers who were willing to work long hours for less pay and under worse working conditions. While the influx of migrant workers from Southern Europe and Northern Africa in the 1960s and 1970s in Western Europe had been a challenge and resulted in tensions, they were incomparable to what was now at hand. For example, the logistical sector in Western Europe saw a quick increase in cheap transport services with trucks and truck drivers from Poland, Lithuania, and later Romania and Bulgaria, and many Western European transport companies were forced to move their headquarters to these countries at least on paper to avoid immediate bankruptcy.

In 1986 the European Union consisted of twelve member states, by 2017 this had more than doubled to 28 with six more on the waiting list (and several others, e.g. Georgia and Ukraine, having expressed their desire to start the accession process). This resulted in a strong economic force, for sure, but also in a highly bureaucratized political conglomerate that had much difficulty developing any concrete policy because of the overwhelming desire to function on basis of consensus. New member states such as Poland, that quickly became an important economic force on the European continent, felt they were treated unfairly as "second-rate" and challenged the dominance of the European Union founding members. Indeed, they had been received as EU members with open arms, but without the full understanding that they would not remain just grateful silent members going along with the policies of the "old guard" but have their own ideas, understandings and demands.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the main opposition to Communist or Socialist rule had mainly been formed by small intellectual groups, nationalist and often conservatively oriented movements and the Church. Especially in Poland and Lithuania the Catholic Church had been a true oppositional force, and the beacon of hope for a suppressed population. However, opposing communist rule is not automatically the same as promoting democratic and liberal thought, and in particular in Poland the Church developed into a political or spiritual force that proved to be much more authoritarian inclined. Nationalist sentiments had helped people to rise against authoritarian or totalitarian rule, yet for many the "rule of Brussels" was merely a replacement of the "rule of Moscow" and looked upon very suspiciously. This, combined with lack of democratic tradition, the emigration of a significant part of the young and more liberal thinking population and the economic hardships resulting from the transition to market economies and the 2008-2009 economic crisis that apart from Poland hit all Central and Eastern European countries particularly hard, created a volcanic climate.

It is this volcanic climate that allowed politicians such as Hungarian Prime-Minister Viktor Orban to position themselves as "saviors of the nation". Originally a liberal and pro-European politician, Orban soon took a much more nationalist position, refusing to follow policy conditions as set by the European Union (the "new Moscow") and gradually chipping away at basic foundations of a democratic state. His rhetoric gradually developed an anti-Semite undertone, focusing much of his anger and frustration at the Hungarian born American philanthropist George Soros, who eventually was forced to move his Central European University and Open Society Institute out of Hungary. Orban's political positioning is very much shared by an equally nationalist Polish government of the Law and Justice Party, which also refuses to bow to criticism from the European Union, and we now see that their anti-EU, anti-immigration, anti-Islam and "our nation first" stand is copied by more and more neighboring countries, including Italy.

Further to the East, the return of authoritarianism and repression in Russia further heightened the tensions. Russia, being the last imperium on the European continent, had gone through a short democratic phase that ended basically in 1993 when President Yeltsin literally shot away the Russian Parliament in a political standoff. Democratic developments gradually came to a halt and the reversal came in 2000 when a former KGB-agent, Vladimir Putin, was named successor to President Yeltsin. Without going much into detail, the former KGB gradually took full control of the country and President Putin started the process of restoring the superpower status of the country, shrewdly combining elements of Russian Imperial and Soviet symbolism. He was not the first to make this combination: already in 1928 Iosif Stalin had voiced he view that he was the inheritor of the Russian Empire with the task to restore its old glory. Putin followed the same line, making use of the old KGB apparatus (that doubled in size since the collapse of the USSR), terminating political opposition, destabilizing neighboring countries (e.g. Georgia and Ukraine) and activating the old network of former spies and moles in Central and Eastern Europe and in the former GDR. Indeed, while the West had been baking itself in a false sense of victorious safely, the Russian secret service had made use of all possible means, including the vast network of Russian criminal gangs that since the 1970s traditionally worked closely under the protection of and in collaboration with governmental services, to expand their influence in the West, traditionally seen as "hostile". Alarming are the close relations between Moscow and the earlier mentioned right-wing parties, based on the concept of 'what is bad for the European Union is good for us."

Many people believe that the migrant crisis in 2016-2017 triggered the radically changed political climate in Europe. However, as described earlier, many of the tensions and disagreements were already there since Europe underwent the upheavals resulting from the collapse of communist rule. Many problems were either undetected or ignored, sometimes on purpose and sometimes out of ignorance and political laziness, and the migrant crisis only proved to be the ultimate catalyst that woke up Europe to the already existing reality.

The current political crisis will be hard to resolve. Europe lacks political leaders that dare to take a strong and clear position that goes against the grain. Most leaders, and particularly right-wing and populist ones, make use of very basic and understandable fears among their electorate, who live in a radically changing world in which old securities, traditions and continuities no longer exist and who see migrants as a threat to their very own existence. Anti-Islam or anti-muslimism is based on those fears, and further whipped up because politicians fail to take the lead and stand up against underbelly politics. When local politicians are able, for instance, to ban the wear of burkini's on the beaches of the Cote d'Azur because they are "extremist" or against traditional Western Judeo-Christian values, it becomes clear that they have lost all sense of realism and fail to act as they should. The same counts for the fact that outright lies have become a "normality" in politics. Donald Trump's repeated mentioning of "fake news" and referral to the press as "the enemy of the people" without any serious consequence is in that sense a very bad omen.

Strong man politics by so-called "alpha-men" has become the norm, and the Trumps, Erdogans, Putins, Xi Jinpings and Kim Jong Uns seem to be calling the shots and dominate political life. We are heading for turbulent times, with non-democratic rule on the rise and democracy challenged not only in developing countries but in the heart of the European continent and the United States. The only consolation is the fact that history traditionally comes in waves, and after the democratic wave of the 1990s we now clearly see a backlash. What has changed, however, is that globalization fundamentally altered the world, and ripples caused by a political storm in Europe go all the way to South-East Asia and vice versa, and an earthquake in the United States can cause a tsunami in Europe. We better brace ourselves for what is to come.