”If the pitcher goes to the well for too long, it breaks” – Volker Stanzel on Europe’s current political malaise
A compelling panel discussion took place at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) on Wednesday 22nd of May in Brussels, in celebration of the recent launch of respected former German diplomat Dr Volker Stanzel’s new book, Die ratlose Außenpolitik: und warum sie den Rückhalt der Gesellschaft braucht (“The foreign policy conundrum: and why it needs the backing of society”).
“There is a widespread feeling that something is wrong in Europe,” said Dr Stanzel in his opening remarks. “We’re facing many crises: the Middle-East is flooding Europe with migrants; we’re facing terrorist attacks; Russia is resurgent; China is becoming economically, politically, and militarily more powerful; and, last but not least, we have the problem of the current American President, Donald Trump.”
Dr Stanzel’s central thesis, argued at length in his book, is that the root cause of much of Europe’s current malaise is European politicians’ continued attempt to implement policies that, although highly successful in the past, are no longer suitable for addressing Europe’s contemporary difficulties.
“There’s an old German saying,” said Dr Stanzel. “‘If the pitcher goes to the well for too long, it breaks.’”
Dr Stanzel went on to list what he saw as the four key reasons why Europe’s present situation is different to what it was in the past: firstly, economic factors, in particular increasing globalisation, de-industrialisation, and the consequent downward pressure on (low-skilled) wages; secondly, social reasons, especially widespread immigration from both outside and inside the EU; thirdly, technological factors, in particular the rise of digital and social media which, according to Dr Stanzel, has “fragmented our societies”, and “made it easier for angry people to come together”; and fourthly, “bureaucratic” factors, in particular the rise of an increasingly technocratic and (seemingly) unaccountable political class.
To solve these problems, Dr Stanzel argued, Europe must make more of an effort to involve its citizens in the political decision-making process. In particular, he claimed that European politicians must try to avoid, on the one hand, a purely “paternalistic” approach to politics (whereby, e.g., politicians turn up at town hall meetings and simply inform citizens, without any prior consultation, what their government is doing on their behalf), while, on the other hand, also avoiding simply bowing to the popular will on every single political issue (e.g., with the use of referenda).
Instead, Dr Stanzel contended that Europe must both be responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens, whilst at the same time being aware of the fact that such responsiveness does not entail the automatic implementation of citizens’ desired policies. He then cited French President Emmanuel Macron’s “grand débat”, held in the wake of the recent gilets jaunes protests, as a good example of the kind of practice which Europe’s politicians should engage more in.
After Dr Stanzel’s opening remarks, two discussants presented their own views on various themes and issues relating to Dr Stanzel’s work.
The first discussant, Mr Aleš Chmelař, State Secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Czech Republic, argued that Europe has been too obsessed with “foreign ventures” over the years. In particular, he argued, Europe needs to “look inward” for the foreseeable future in order to sort out structural problems relating to financialisation, deindustrialisation, and globalisation. “We’ve been spending far too long trying to fight the Taliban rather than trying to fight structural issues at home,” he said.
The second discussant, Dr Rosa Balfour, Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, emphasised the importance of “getting the analysis right” when it comes to diagnosing Europe’s current problems. In particular, she claimed that the primary cause of Europe’s difficulties was Western governments’ implementation of neoliberal policies beginning in the 1980s – policies whose central tenets (limited government, privatisation, deregulation) have, according to Dr Balfour, since been adopted by the majority of Europe’s mainstream political parties.
Dr Balfour also noted that populism is “not the cause of Europe’s current problem; it’s a consequence”, and went on to criticise Mr Chmelař’s claim that Europe should “look inward”. “In today’s globalised world, the boundary between what’s internal and what’s external doesn’t exist any more,” she said.
Finally, Dr Balfour expressed agreement with Dr Stanzel’s central thesis that Europe needs to engage its citizens more in political decision-making, including in matters pertaining to foreign policy. “The end of foreign policy as an elite endeavour has been decreed,” she said.
A number of other issues and themes were mentioned during the the ensuing Q&A, with Dr Stanzel in particular emphasising the importance of supporting free trade, of resisting the urge to nationalise private businesses, and of maintaining, above all else, a sense of European solidarity.