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March 07, 2019

Some provocative thoughts on liberal democracy in Europe

When we looked at the eurozone in the past, our main perspective was economic. Macroeconomics in particular remains relevant, but with the eurozone crisis other analytical approaches intruded - economic history in particular. The full scale of the EU's broader predicament cannot be grasped from any singular vantage point, which is why we took a special interest in the latest article by Wolfgang Streek, a noted German sociologist, whose thinking on the future of the EU corresponds in some important respects with our own even if his perspective is entirely different. 

His sociological model of the EU is that of a liberal empire, hierarchically structured with Germany as the central hegemon exercising its powers through a system of rules and disciplines as opposed to military force. His expectation is that this liberal empire will fail, because the maintenance of this regime would ultimately require military means which Germany as the hegemon would (obviously) not provide. This thrust of this analysis we can follow. 

We are far more sceptical of the many conspiratorial assertions - for example that Germany and its liberal partners are conspiring to keep liberal regimes in power, for example Matteo Renzi in Italy. As close observers of both Italian and German politics we can definitely rule out secret plots. Streek refers to Renzi's loss of power as an accidental failure - the exception that proves the rule - but we think the system is far less controlled and intrinsically more chaotic that his neat sociological model of a central hegemon would suggest. 

But we agree with him in his analysis of the institutional requirements for liberal hegemonies to function. The EU requires rule by centrist elites - it would not function otherwise. EU treaties embed liberal policies. We note that the EU's attempt to frustrate a referendum in Greece in late 2011 would fit Streek's described pattern, but Brexit for example did not. It is premature to draw any firm conclusion from Brexit about the future of the EU - if only because the Brexit terms are not yet settled, with extreme outcomes still possible. We think Streek is wrong to characterise the EU's approach to Brexit as motivated by setting an example and deliberately imposing costs. Again, we think this is too conspiratorial. The EU's negotiating stance was guided by material interests - securing the UK's budget contribution for the current period, the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and of course the Irish border. As observers we should be aware of over-strategising. More often than not, things are more straight-forward than they appear to a strategy-hunting academic or journalist. 

But Streek is spot-on in his analysis of Germany's unwillingness to meet the 2% defence spending goal. For one, it would mean that Germany would spend 40% more on defence than Russia, and unlike Russia this would be entirely on conventional forces. Germany would, in practice, also vastly outspend France which is using a good portion of its military budget to maintain its nuclear capabilities. This would imply that the burden of conventional warfare in Europe would fall squarely on Germany and German troops. This is not going to happen given the country's strong pacifist majority and its constitutional safeguards. We agree with Streek in his central assertion that a country's unwillingness or inability to turn itself into a military power is one of the factors that can accelerate the demise of liberal democracy.

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