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Hard times for Europe

Demonstration for real democracy in Europe. Emma Espejo/Getty Images. All rights reserved.

Latin American democracies
used to look themselves up in the mirror of European democracies. The resulting reflection was a portrait which Latin
America wished to bear a resemblance to. Today, however, it is mirroring a distorted picture, full of anxieties, tensions and
even regressions. And this should certainly be of
concern in both hemispheres.

Latin America
is vigorously facing different possible scenarios
on the path to full democratization and consolidation with guarantees. As much as the region carries the weight of very serious
problems of violence, corruption, and drawbacks related to its economic and
labour models, it is also circulating ideas, proposals
and invigorating experiences which should
be understood in all their
potential by Europeans.

Europe,
meanwhile, is mired in
an existential debate. Both within its borders and in the world at large, it appears weakened in its
role as promoter
and defender of the core values of democracy,
tolerance and social justice that have
given it its meaning, and that
have provided a few decades of unprecedented
prosperity and freedom.

Latin
America can obviously still learn from Europe but, more importantly, Europe must begin to learn from Latin
America. The times of European
hegemony are over. Both spaces need now to reinforce each other in order to preserve the
gains that they have achieved in terms of rights, freedoms and democracy, as
opposed to less tolerant geopolitical
areas.

A
brief overview of democracy in the world
today, shows that we are facing a recessive, barely optimistic scenario.
We are witnessing how the aim of achieving stability has overridden
any democratic awakening in the Middle East and the
Arab world. Looking eastwards, Russia
is an emerging declining power, emerging militarily, but
sharply declining economically and socially, and has
become an increasingly assertive champion of illiberal
democracy. Besides, Putin’s attitude in Ukraine and Syria is no joke. Further
East, massive China is prioritizing internal growth and economic sustainability over any democratic advance. Africa is moving
along the path of development, but faces a long list of challenges, and achieving democracy is on that
to-do list. But even in the
United States, the world champion for liberal democracy, the entire political spectrum is managed by a plutocracy.
Almost no one talks about the
real problems of the country; its
leadership in our multi-polar world
is weakening and losing ground partly thanks to its own mistakes.

If
all that is true, Latin America and Europe would then be the spaces
where hope of achieving further progress in building vibrant and progressive societies is still
alive. But in the face of the current struggle, which in
Latin America could be exacerbated if the change in the
economic and perhaps also political cycle is
confirmed, Europe today finds itself at a very low ebb. The European project represented a peaceful and prosperous aftermath to a
long and heavy civil war (1914-1945).
Coming out of this incredibly destructive
phase, which had a devastating
impact for the world at large, Europeans managed
to set up a common project of union and
progress which has been, undeniably, a success story.

Through progressive integration and consensus, it attracted more and more
countries through successive enlargement waves. For one state after the other, access
to the European Union appeared to guarantee
the internal strengthening of the
values that constitute the three pillars
on which the project was built:
democracy, tolerance and social justice. And the Lisbon Treaty guaranteed “an ever closer union”.

Cracks in the European shop

The
perception – and, in fact, the reality
– was that European citizens obtained not only democratic guarantees, but prosperity, free mobility, more and better markets. Being European meant, basically, being a
winner. But this integration success
story was truncated by the
great crisis of 2008, which had a very disruptive consequence: the emergence of winners and
losers in the continent, especially from 2010. And
the losers have begun to think that the European Union or, more abstractly,
“Brussels” is to blame. The
middle and lower classes have lost out
for the first time since the war, and a mood of suspicion
and mutual distrust has come down on Europe, from Berlin
to Athens, from Copenhagen to
Lisbon, from London to Madrid.

The
North distrusts the South, and vice
versa, especially on economic policy issues. And internal inequalities
resulting from the imposition of harsh
fiscal austerity measures and draconian
financial bailouts have left too many people in the lurch. But also, and more worryingly,
yet another distrust has emerged between East and West, this time concerning values. It has to do with an illiberal temptation to renounce the basic
principles of the rule of law (the independence of the judiciary and the media) which has a very negative impact on what is even more essential for the joint project: democracy and freedom of expression.

The
crisis has heightened the persisting wealth differences
and social fractures in Europe.
These fractures have deepened and they now affect a very significant number of people who have
lost their jobs and social benefits,
and many have even fallen out of the
system and are now living in
social exclusion, not only in Spain and Greece,
but also in richer countries such as Germany and the UK. The winners belong to the elites, and
most of them remain fervent supporters of the Union, knowing that
greater integration is the solution rather than the problem. But the
losers have lost confidence and trust, particularly after
the collapse of social solidarity values, which has weakened
and undermined the collective democratic
project. Some of them are now taking refuge in nationalism,
xenophobia or euroscepticism; most of
them, in apathy and disengagement.

Many took to the
streets at the peak of the crisis but are watching, dismayed, how their illusions clash
with realpolitik. The left, including
many within the new left, has
joined the nationalist right in their misunderstanding
of the nature of the problem, missing the big picture
by dismissing the European level and
thinking small. Its leaders focus on domestic, national politics  true
politics! they claim – losing sight of the fact that the real problems are to be
found at the European, if not global, level. The progressive agenda appears to have lost the battle against the neoliberal formulas
that dominate the economy, and by
putting all its energy into the battle for the small, domestic power, the European left also appears to be missing a reliable alternative, one that can be promoted throughout the continent and
in the institutions in Brussels.

Meanwhile,
blindness seems to have overtaken all
European politicians, both left
and right, not only regarding the single-currency
design flaws and the calamitous failure
to reduce inequalities (now that the
prosperous period of the cohesion
policies of the 80s and 90s is over), but also the
challenges of external and internal security. In this sense, the Syrian refugee crisis is paradigmatic: while it was already clear
in 2012 and 2013 that the pressure on countries
like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which were hosting by then more than 2 million Syrian refugees, was unbearable,
European bureaucrats proved incapable of assuming the challenge.

And
now, when it is much too late, Europe appears still unable to react, which is astonishing, considering the history of Europe in the twentieth
century. A positive reaction, at first, from
Germany has backfired, and endless barbed
wire lines the internal borders, including those that had already been dismantled by the Schengen Treaty, which was supposed to guarantee the free movement of citizens within the Union,
one of the greatest achievements of
European integration.

How
many political and economic European refugees was Latin America able to host
in the harshest times of the twentieth century? What is the responsibility of Europeans today? Spain,
with a population of 46 million, has only
granted asylum to 19 Syrian refugees
in 2015. Nineteen! Richer countries, with an
honorable tradition of welcoming refugees like the UK,
are not doing much better.

To
make things worse, the impact of international – even
if domestically brewed –terrorism is threatening to give a new twist to
the frightened and increasingly surveilled European societies, apparently willing to sacrifice rights and
freedoms for the sake of an
almost impossible security. The exceptional measures taken
in France are supposed to be against terrorism but they end affecting
basic rights of the people. As proven in Argentina
and Peru, there are no shortcuts against
terrorism: the preservation of the rule of law is vital for democracy.

European democracy matters in Latin America

What
is at stake for European democracy is
something that matters in the world but,
particularly, in Latin America. The European
core values of social justice, tolerance and democratic guarantees must withstand the
onslaught of this long-lasting crisis. Beyond the structural problems of a slow-growing economy and an aging population which is also growing very slowly, there is no lack
of regeneration proposals and solutions for change.

At different levels, we
can see some prominent Europeans making proposals. Thomas Piketty proposes “A new deal for
Europe”, George Soros is also making proposals for a peaceful and
productive Europe. And even, from a more radical point of view, Yanis
Varoufakis is making proposals, with the recent launch of his Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 in
Berlin. We know what the solutions are, starting with greater political
integration, a robust defense of social conquests, a more balanced, green and
diversified economy, a common foreign and security policy –  but we do not know how to get on with them
without unnecessary breakage. The nation-state still lives on, although in some
cases it is risking internal disintegration, such as in Spain, where Catalonia is
calling for a state of its own in an empty effort to exercise a sovereignty
that no longer exists.

The exercise undertaken by Alerta Democrática in Latin America, which
consists in drawing possible scenarios for
democracies in the future and a
navigation chart, could prove useful to enrich the debate and influence a self-absorbed, problem-ridden European
democracy that needs to look up. Despite much bigger
problems, Latin America has been able
to move forward, towards more and
better democracies.

Both
regions should persevere in
defending the values they share,
and in strengthening each other. It has
been said that the success of European democracy and ithe European ntegration project will be a
success not only for Europeans, but
for a utopian though necessary future
global governance project. Not only
North and Latin Americans need the project
to succeed, also the Chinese are genuinely interested in a prosperous Europe, projected
into the future.

As
an experiment – which is what the
European project ultimately is –, the
European Union is subject to
a trial-and-error methodology. I would like to think that we find ourselves
now in the error phase, but that the
experiment as a whole will eventually succeed. Although its achievements are indisputable, success requires to remain vigilant, to seek allies, and to convince the younger generations that this is also
their project, and their future.

By opening up and contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of the new Latin American democracies with
the strengths and weaknesses of European
democracies, and by looking into
the struggles, experimentations and debates taking place here and there, we shall improve the chances of success of our common purpose: a free,
prosperous and peaceful life for all. These hard times for Europe must raise awareness of the fragility of our
open systems and the need for a continuous mutual strengthening with ideas and
initiatives coming from as many places as possible.

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