The Future of Liberal Democracy in Europe
Panelists discuss the current state of identity politics and populism in Europe, including the complex interaction between economic and cultural factors, and how they affect the state of democracy across the continent.
This meeting is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.
CONLEY: Well, good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, “The Future of Liberal Democracy in Europe.” Thank you so much for joining us today, including the two-hundred-plus members who are joining us via Zoom.
My name is Heather Conley. I’m president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. And I will be presiding over today’s discussion.
And we have an all-star panel to dig into this topic today.
And let me start by introducing, to my right, Francis Fukuyama, Olivier Nomellini senior fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, and author of Liberalism and Its Discontents. I promise you, none of us are the discontents, but maybe we can talk about that.
Next we have Matthias Matthijs, a senior fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations.
And with us is my colleague Constanze Stelzenmüller, director of Fritz Stern chair on Germany and transatlantic relations at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
So with that, let’s start our engines here. I’m going to—I always like to begin with a baseline a sort of a definition, because many have difference of view of what a liberal democracy constitutes. So I’m going to sort of use, Frank, from Liberalism and Its Discontents, I’m going to boil it down. But you three can argue with my definition, but it’s very baseline. Liberal Democracy is the dignity of the individual, and that individual’s autonomy, and its ability to be very inclusively involved in all of a country’s political processes. I’m just going to be very generalistic. That’s my definition of liberal democracy.
So this is a perfect moment, two months before—or, actually, no, excuse me. One month before the May 14th Turkish elections, we have Greek elections, we have Poland’s elections coming up in October, next year European Parliament elections, Ukraine elections, possibly the U.K. elections. So we’ve got lots of points of thinking about the health of liberal democracy. But today, and, Frank, I’m going to start with you and we’ll work down the panel, give me a quick diagnostic of today’s state of health of liberal democracy in Europe more broadly, and some areas that you believe are showing some flashing lights of great concern to us. I’m going to have you kick off, and then Matthias and Constanze, have you weigh in on that. What’s the state of health of Europe’s liberal democracies today?
FUKUYAMA: Well, in general, it’s not good. Freedom House published its latest Freedom in the World Survey about a month ago. And this is the seventeenth consecutive year for an aggregate decline in democracy scores. So that’s been really going on since about 2008. I think that just in definitional terms, you know, we’re talking about liberal democracy. And that’s a system that has two separate parts. The liberal part has to do with really rule of law, constitutional constraints on executive power that preserve the freedom of citizens that live in such societies. And the democratic part has to do with elections and democratic accountability. And although they are closely intertwined, they’re not the same thing.
Russia and China have neither of them, so you have a clear authoritarian threat in both cases. But, you know, what’s been going on, I think, in the world in the last few years with the rise of populist nationalism is you actually have the democratic part of that duo turning on the liberal part. And so, you know, Erdoğan in Hungary (sic), Modi in India, Donald Trump in the United States. You have a lot of leaders that have—they’re legitimately elected. Well, with—(laughs)—some modifications of that, because they then try to fool with the rules for elections. But they all start out democratically elected.
They come into office and they say: The people selected me. I’m the voice of the people. And here’s this judge, here’s this media organization, here’s this bureaucracy that’s standing in my way. And the first attack is really on the liberal part of liberal democracy, in terms of dismantling rule of law institutions, packing courts—you know, which has happened in both Hungary and Poland in big ways. And at that point, once the constraints on their power has been reduced, then they can start messing with the democratic part by gerrymandering, by, you know, making it difficult for opposition parties to get a foothold. And so the deterioration, you know, is really more against the liberalism than against the democracy.
CONLEY: So would you term that there is such a term then as illiberal democracy? So we have that in Hungary where, yes, democratically elected but the institutions have been so controlled it is, in fact, illiberal?
FUKUYAMA: Well, and Orbán said that explicitly. He said, that’s what he’s trying to construct. And it’s not liberal in a fundamental sense. You know, there’s a privileging of a certain ethnic group and, you know, majority within the country at the expense of minority rights. But that’s true in a lot of places, in Turkey, and India, and so forth.
CONLEY: Matthias, what do you believe the state of health of liberal democracy in Europe, and what is the blinking light on your dashboard that you’re particularly focusing on right now?
MATTHIJS: Yeah. First thing I would add to the illiberal democracy part is that I think it can only be a state of being for a few years, right? I mean, you can’t stay there forever, because I think the technical term for Hungary today is a competitive authoritarian regime, right? In the sense that there’s free elections, but they’re not particularly fair. There’s no level playing field, right? There’s a huge advantage to the incumbent.
And so going back to, you know, having studied Europe and European integration for twenty-five years, looking back at the 1990s I think the EU was too focused on economic reform and maybe not enough on political reform, right? And so when you looked at the transition, the dual transitions from planned to market economy, that’s where the EU was focused, was the single market and the single currency, and so on. And I think largely democracy was taken for granted in the kind of modernization sense. Hungary, even Turkey at the time, Poland, I mean these are young democracies. If we get them more prosperous, it’s going to—it’s going to settle in. And then we don’t have to worry about it anymore. So that, I think, was a mistake, in hindsight, of course. Not to focus on this.
But if I look at the state of European democracy today, I mean, I see somewhat of a west-east divide a bit. And I don’t want to overdo this, because obviously there’s place like Latvia and Estonia that are very vibrant democracies. And so Hungary and Poland is not all of Eastern Europe. But where we do worry about the liberal part of liberal democracy, as Frank said, I think it’s mostly in Central and Eastern Europe, especially in Hungary but also in Poland. And a lot of people are willing to forgive the Polish regime—the prime minister is visiting D.C. right now—because of their stanch support for Ukraine. That whatever’s happening, we shouldn’t forget what’s happening domestically with rule of law and so on.
And then in—so in Western Europe, there’s different fault lines, right? One is clearly an urban-rural one. That’s, of course, present in all modern democracies, but for those of you who follow the Netherlands, I’m from Belgium originally but north of us, out of nowhere came this new party that was the Farmer-Citizen Party that took over—became the biggest party in the last regional elections. And it’s all about nitrogen emissions and things like this, right? And it’s really about, you know, taking the side of farmers, the countryside and so on, that’s happening. And secondly, which is a major fault line and, I think, a worry for anybody who wants European integration to succeed in the long run, and that’s a young-old kind of generational divide.
Where, of course, as the young flocked to Macron in 2017 in France, they flocked to Le Pen five years later. Which I think was striking. But there, the north-south divide is stronger, where in Southern Europe since the euro crisis, young people flocking to anti-system parties that, you know, don’t like the way the liberal
democratic system works, and want to overhaul it. While in Northern Europe, young people are more comfortable voting for kind of radical liberal democratic and green parties. But you have to realize, the success of those parties is very heavily concentrated in Northern and Western Europe, where there are prospects for young people that are much brighter than in other parts. So it’s definitely a mixed bag, but there are regional differences.
CONLEY: Yeah. I want to—I want to come back and talk a little bit about generational divide, even gender divide, and how we see that playing out particularly in elections and expression.
But Constanze, give us your take on the diagnostic of liberal democracy in Europe. In particular, what concerns you?
STELZENMÜLLER: OK. Well, I’m a German. And I actually trained once as a constitutional lawyer, a long time ago. So I have some specific ideas on this. But I’m also a student of Judith Shklar’s at Harvard, which I think has marked me more than anything else that I’ve learned. So my take on liberal democracy is the following: It is a specific kind of constitutional order that provides for balance and separation of power, the protection of political pluralism and, above all, the protection of minorities against the tyranny of majorities, right? That, to me, is liberal democracy. So elections alone do not a democracy make—a liberal democracy, at any rate.
The word “liberal” here is distracting because it is seen as occupying a specific part of the political spectrum. And I think that that is often confusing to people. The opposite of liberal democracy, illiberal democracy, is the populist take that, espoused by certain authoritarian leaders, who proport not just to represent the will of the people and all the people more accurately than political parties do, but who then set about dismantling representative constitutional orders, and dismantling—and this is crucial—dismantling also the mediating institutions, as they’re called by theorists, that try to play connectors in between elections between the represented and the representatives, which is things like publicly-funded media, unions, interest groups, all that.
And to the extent that they purport to be doing a public service, you will very often find the populace and the authoritarians trying to take them down. The BBC is such a case. Not that there is nothing to criticize about the BBC or, for that matter, about German public broadcasting. But if you look closely at the language and at the attacks mounted against them, they are against their existence not against their flaws.
Then there is another aspect that we haven’t really touched on that I think is really quite important, which is that in the pre-institutional space we are now seeing something that has come to be called culture wars. In other words, remember the famous quote by Steve Bannon saying culture is upstream of politics. And, presumably, he could have said politics is upstream of these democratic institutions and processes. In other words, attempts to reframe the issues, the challenges, the values of societies against the liberal modernity take, which is—has been the—I think the dominating ordering system of the postwar era in the West, right?
And so what you’re seeing right now in Europe, but also in America I would add since we haven’t mentioned that yet, is attacks against the constitutional orders, in the strictest sense, against the mediating institutions, and attempts to move the Overton window, as it were, of what is acceptable in the cultural, the pre-political space. And if I am—one last point on that, if I may. And this sort of brings me back to Judith Shklar. I think the best summary that I have heard of what is happening in the pre-political space is that what we are looking at is attempts to re-legitimize cruelty, right? The cruelty is the point. And in other words, it is—the whole point of liberal modernity really is to delegitimize societal warfare, right? And what the populists are doing is trying to bring that back. And I’ll stop there.
CONLEY: Wow, fantastic. And I want to pull on identity because that is such a part of this. But I’m going to—I’m just going to inject here, and sort of listening to you, words really matter here. And what I’m struck by is particularly authoritarian regimes are really using the vocabulary of democracy and turning into their own. So I
think those words matter, and the accessibility of those words. And this is where we can charge and defend the international liberal rules-based order, and a lot of the population, like, what? It’s the words that we use and the accessibility.
And I really want to pull on that, the mediating institutions. Because this is the role of technology, in some ways, has profoundly challenged those mediation. And this is where social activism and technology, that door swings both ways. And, Frank, I want to turn this to you. The role of technology. Because on the one hand it’s an incredible tool for civic activism, engagement, sort of a movement away from isolationism. At the same time, it is a crude tool for exactly, as you’re saying, this unleashing of grievance and hate that we aren’t able to control effectively. So how does technology, in your view, play a role in the evolution of liberal democracy? We harness the best, but it seems we can’t control the worst of it.
FUKUYAMA: Yeah. Well, we have seen a huge impact of technology in general that has had a really devastating effect on almost every society in terms of social trust. If you look at trust surveys around the world, almost every major institution, beginning with governments but labor unions, corporations, you know, civil society groups, have all seen a massive decrease in trust. And I think part of that has to do with the loss of elite control because, quite frankly, you know, when I was young, you had limited media channels. You had three broadcast networks. You had a couple of national newspapers, and then television. And they were all in a way based around a certain consensus about the political system and about what’s, you know, truth, and what’s acceptable to say.
And the internet just blew that up. You know, back in the 1990s when the internet was first privatized, I and a lot of other people thought that this would be great because you have all these gatekeepers that were actually blocking people’s access. Information is power, and if you open this up to everybody, you know, ordinary people would have power. And that’s true. I mean, it’s much easier to mobilize these days, but the problem is that the loss of those kind of certified channels that provided reliable information, you know, that’s all been blown away by the fact that anyone can say anything they want on the internet, and there’s really nobody—you know, no third-party judge to say that that’s actually, you know, false information.
And we’re stuck in this situation where, you know, we’ve kind of left it up to the big media platforms—Google, Facebook, Twitter—to be the judges of what is acceptable political speech. That’s not such a great situation because, you know, you may have liked the way that they’ve been managing it up till now, but then a rich guy comes along and buys one of these platforms and then switches over the way the content is mediated. We just saw a big example of that, you know, with Twitter. But we also don’t want governments to be the ones who determine what is truthful information. And so we’re in this, you know, situation where there’s not really a clear way forward in terms of restoring the credibility of the basic channels of information that we rely on.
It's going to get worse. (Laughs.) You know, it’s really going to get worse, because we are already, as we speak, being hit by deepfakes. So in a couple of years, you know, any teenager’s going to be able to go to a website, make use of the technology to have anybody say anything in a video that they want them to say. And the authentication of photographs, you know, anything digital is going to be much, much harder. So you think of what that’s going to do to social trust across the board, and democracy, you know, the ability to kind of come to a common consensus not just about, you know, values, but around just plain facts. It gets much worse.
CONLEY: That element of trust, which is so key to how democracy works, is really a challenge.
Matthias, let me take the technology question and push it towards the generational divide on liberal democracy. You know, polling has suggested that young people are growing indifferent to democracy. It hasn’t benefited them. They’re not sure about it. Yet, we see again that social activism around technology. We saw here in the U.S. the midterm elections, young people played an enormous role. And normally that’s—again, I agree totally with Constanze. Elections are but a snapshot of the totality of political processes, but it’s a snapshot. We now—you know, how do young people—you know, that’s our future and the strength of liberal democracy. How do
young people in Europe play into this dynamic? You were mentioning the anti-elite, anti-system approach. There’s variations. But help us understand the role of young people in the strength of future liberal democracy in Europe.
MATTHIJS: So there’s definitely reason for optimism there and hope, as much as there is danger, right? So what Frank was talking about is, I think, deeply problematic, in the sense that I grew up in a place where everybody watched the same news, right? And the news was tailored for you and it wasn’t just the one thing you were interested in, right? It was, like, a half-an-hour. And the powers that be tailored it. So this was domestic, and there was foreign news, and it was sports, and whatever, right? Now, of course, people only read what they’re interested in. And the algorithms of the social media platforms amplify that, right, which I think is problematic. And when you reread accounts of how much young people do spend on their smartphones and tablets, I mean, it’s way more than we ever thought.
That said, what is striking is that the traditional move of young people that are, you know, progressive or left wing, and as they have kids, and these kids have to go to school, and they see safety concerns and they pay taxes, suddenly become right wing, then we don’t see this as much anymore. That there’s a whole generation—this is true in the U.K., it’s true in the U.S. to extent, but in other European countries as well—is that they—like, in the U.K., they stick with Labour, right? They are not aspiring to move Tory one day because they’ll have assets to protect, or something like this. They have—their existence is much more precarious, right?
And so if you think of the political economy of the youth vote—and that, I mean, I’ve been doing research with a grad student on this. In Europe, it’s deeply problematic, right? Europe is fast—aging much faster than the United States. And older people do vote, as we know, right? And this has been, you know, reflected in the spending priorities of governments. In Southern Europe particularly, as the troika came in and these countries had to do austerity and structural reform over the last fifteen years, pensions were protected but youth spending wasn’t, right? So you had cuts in education, you had cuts in unemployment assistance.
And a lot of people—I mean, in Spain it was most extreme, as in Greece—people moved back in with their families, right? And so that’s kind of turned them in more sort of very different anti-system parties. In Northern Europe, it’s less outspoken. That said, it’s more even, especially in a place like Germany where previous governments and this government has managed to kind of maintain a balance between young and old people’s spending.
But you do see a new period of activism as well, right? So on the one hand, this can be used, as we saw in Wisconsin, for example, recently, right? A lot of people registering to vote in progressive ways. But it can also mean that someone like Marine Le Pen in France can have a huge following among young people. And not just—you know, like, including many third-generation French young citizens who feel like, you know, they need to try something else.
What I think—and I’ll end on this—what is more problematic for the European Union is that younger people in Southern Europe and Eastern Europe are turning against European integration more than their previous generations. And I was amazed by this when talking to my own research assistants. They’re, like, yeah, but you’re, what, like, forty-five years old, something like that? Not quite—not quite forty-five.
CONLEY: Easy, easy, easy.
MATTHIJS: But she was, like, yeah, but you came of age in the ’90s and the 2000s, when everything was great. And I was, like, well, all we ever have known in Europe is crisis. Crisis of this, crisis of that. And then in the pandemic they told us again that we needed to sacrifice for the old. And so in that sense, I think Europe has a lot of work still ahead.
CONLEY: Constanze, I know you want to jump in on that, but I’m going to add to it. Because we talked about the geographic divide, and I want to spend my last question focusing on the east a little bit before we turn to members. There is a geographic divide here. And in part it’s young people. We’re seeing an outflow of young people, of migration. I’m always reminded of the great Ivan Krastev quote, “it’s easier to change your country than your government.” Meaning, so I’m going to vote with my feet. I want to go to a government that, you know, addresses my issues. We’re seeing outflows of young people from Hungary, from Western Balkans, et cetera. But there’s also a big geographic divide in Germany. We have three Länder elections in the East coming up. I know you’re particularly concerned. You know, thirty-plus years after reunification, generationally as well as geographically, there’s still a great separation about what democracy delivers for the former East.
STELZENMÜLLER: So thank you very much. That’s a really important question. And it allows me to connect what Matthias was just saying with yours. Which is that ultimately the consent of the governed, right, is premised on the conviction that democracy does what it’s supposed to do, namely deliver fair, inclusive, effective, legitimate governance, right? And I think what we have taken for granted in all Western democracies, including in this country, is that democracy is essentially self-legitimizing and self-repairing. That’s a mistake, as we have come to understand. It is possible for some political forces to strip out the structural bulwarks, as it were, of democracy. And there are Western countries where some political forces have done that very deliberately over decades.
And we’re seeing the result of that in the alienation and the grievances of populations that become permanently excluded from—and have become convinced that government for them is no longer a provider of public goods, right? And we have, I think, cheerfully ignored that fact, to our—to our peril. So, yes, there are structural questions for all of us to address. And I will say, deliberate and malignant attacks against the effectiveness and legitimacy of governments. But there are other structural issues that, you know, of themselves I think are—we now, particularly with these new developments and technology. But I think that without any sort of additional malignant action either from inside or from outside, I think we come to see as problematic.
And let me give you two examples. I think part of the problem in France and in Italy is that you have structures that basically create volatility of a kind that prevent the distribution—the providing of effective governance and providing of public goods, and that give voters only one recourse, which is to either reelect a new government or to go on the streets and protest, right? And in France in particular, you have a highly centralizing government—presidential constitution, with an extremely poor legislative branch on the federal level, and also very limited federalism, right?
The German constitution in many ways is the opposite. It was carefully designed, with some help from our allies—particularly from American constitutional lawyers—in 1949 to be—provide a maximum of checks and balances and a maximum of forces of inertia to prevent disruptive change of any kind. And at a time when actually we’re trying to get some transformative change, that’s a problem.
CONLEY: It may have worked a little too well at this point, but yeah.
STELZENMÜLLER: Exactly, it worked out too well. But what you are seeing in German elections is that in a crisis German electorate tends to bunch in the middle. And that brings me to your question of those three eastern state elections. They’re in the fall of 2024, so next year. But they are in Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg, where the AfD polls in second or first place. And this traffic light coalition government has been very lucky that it has had no eastern elections, and that the AfD at the federal level is a spent force, because it has radicalized so publicly and so extremely that the domestic intelligence service has now said it is subject to surveillance as a party, not just for individual elements.
But I think that, given the tensions that we’re seeing and that Matthias described, younger voters, deeply unhappy with what they perceive as a complete inability of governing elites to attend to issues that they think are existential for them, such as climate change, also societal injustice. And you see sort of radicalizing forces
that aren’t just on the right. They’re also on the left. Although, I think there that term is increasingly meaningless because these things aren’t ideological leftwing in the way that they were when I was young, that age. But, you know, that is something, again, we ignore at our peril.
CONLEY: Yeah, absolutely. I vote, nothing changes, frustration. So I’m going to give one question to the full panel and let you think about that because I’m going to now turn to members here in the room first. So please raise your hand and we’ll start those questions.
But I want to turn to—my mother used to read Ladies Home Journal, and there was always a section, “Can This Marriage be Saved?” So I’m going to turn this, can this democracy be saved? The case of Hungary and Georgia, can this democracy be saved? And what can we do? So I want the panel to think about those questions.
Let me turn to our members. Right back there, please. And the microphone’s coming your way. Thank you. And I just want to remind, again, this is hybrid meeting. It’s on the record. And, again, we really would love you to join our conversation. So please, sir, thank you.
Q: Hello. My name is Jeff Cimbalo. I was Sam Huntington’s research assistant when you doing The End of History. I haven’t seen you since then. This is great. And Joe Jaffe was my two-doors-down neighbor at Harvard also.
CONLEY: Oh, gosh, troublemakers there, yes.
Q: So this is Harvard old home week. I just figured I’d bring that up. (Laughter.)
The thing that I haven’t heard yet but I bet you have something to say about it is the kind of superstructure that exists over the individual member states of the European Union. To wit, like, the structure itself, the democratic structure itself in the European Union. Which, you know, it was 2001 when they had a declaration from the magnificent, you know, palace at Laeken where they said: We need to be more democratic. Putting aside the optics. What progress has been made in this, I mean, to your mind? And what’s the future of democracy as to institutions—the institutions of the European Union, in your opinion? Thanks.
CONLEY: Great questions about the—do EU institutions help or sort of pervert this project? So I want you to answer the first question, can this democracy be saved, the case of Hungary and/or Georgia? And then, how do EU institutions help this process? Frank, I’ll just work down the line.
FUKUYAMA: Well, it’s funny. We’ve been on this panel for more than thirty minutes and we’ve not mentioned the word “Ukraine.” And I think that a lot of what happens in places like Hungary, but especially in Georgia, really completely depend on the outcome of the Ukraine war. And unfortunately, we’re at this very delicate moment where Ukrainians are about to launch an offensive, and if they succeed in breaking through and liberating at least the southern part of their country, then I think we’ll be in a reasonable position, Western aid will continue, and Putin will, you know, look even worse than he does now. If the Russians stabilize things, Western support is going to deteriorate. We’ll be in an election year in this country, and so forth. And that will have a big effect on everybody in the region.
And, you know, people like Orbán are rooting for the—you know, the Russian side. I did a piece in Foreign Affairs just this past week on Georgia, because in a way Ukraine has consumed so much attention that people have forgotten about a lot of the other countries in the region. And essentially, you know, you have one oligarch in that country, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has been operating the Georgian government by remote control through his Georgian Dream Party, and tilting it in a very pro-Russian direction. And so if Russia actually succeeds in stymying, you know, the Ukrainians and there’s a continuing stalemate, Western support begins to crumble, I think you’ll see a lot of these peripheral countries moving in a—you know, an even more pro-
Russian direction. But that, you know, really depends on kind of military events that will happen really in the next few months.
CONLEY: Yeah, absolutely. Do you have thoughts on EU institutions, help, hinder?
FUKUYAMA: I think we have—we’ve got a couple of people that are much better prepared to speak on that than me.
CONLEY: Absolutely. You’re always free to weigh in, however.
MATTHIJS: Thank you. Excellent question, first of all. So I think I can combine the two, right? I mean, when I started graduate school, we were in the midst of this giant debate of the EU democratic deficit, where, Andy Moravcsik at Princeton was arguing there was no such thing because you had all democratically elected leaders, and the Council was still the main place where things were decided, by people who had a democratic mandate from their member state nation-state. And the Commission was mostly a kind of secretariat who was implementing these things. And of course, you had the European Parliament that was growing in strength.
Simon Haigh at the London School of Economics was arguing, with co-authors, well, EU really could do with more politics, in the end. If member states are still voting along national lines, what’s the point? There should be more kind of a right-left. And if voters are leaning left, the EU should push left wing policies, and right wing, and so on. I feel like with Hungary and Poland today having slipped back quite far on the authoritarian side, the real democratic deficit the EU now has is more in member states. And so that brings to me Heather’s question on Hungary, right?
So in an effort to be optimistic about Europe’s future, in early January I wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs talking about 2022 being the year the EU got its mojo back, in a sense, being that—not so much that they had—Western unity had held, and the Commission was showing how much they could do when it came to sanctions, when it came to kind of using its single market as a—as a tool, right, to get other actors to behave in certain ways. But even though on the front of Hungary, it was now clear that, in a way, Hungary staying out of the eurozone meant that inflation was worse, its interest rates were higher, and its debt was becoming a bigger problem. And they had a hard time refinancing it.
Which meant that the pots of money that were agreed on jointly financed by the EU in 2020 as part of Next Generation EU and the EU’s response to the pandemic, were much more important. Were actually a lifeline to the Orbán regime. Which gave the EU much more leverage over the Organ regime than they had before, where Orbán could casually ignore it, even though he kept getting it. Does that mean that they have been cracking down on this? No. And of course, this is—this is a kind of rot that started in 2010. And, you know, with co-authors. And you could blame Angela Merkel, to some extent, for sort of ignoring this too much. Or, maybe, you know, wanting this to go away, and probably was the one leader, part of the same political party family as Orbán, that could have pushed back against it but decided not to. Of course, she was busy herself building pipelines with Russia and so on.
I mean, all water under the bridge now, but I feel like slowly the tide against Orbán is changing. And I’m not quite—maybe I disagree with Frank maybe a little bit here, that I don’t think Orbán is necessarily cheering for Russia. I think it’s mostly interested about Orbán, right? If he sees the tide turn on Russia, I think he will quickly turn himself and secure his own geopolitical interest. But maybe I’m wrong on that.
STELZENMÜLLER: Right. So a couple things. I entirely agree with Frank that what happens in Ukraine will be determinative for the future of Europe, including of its constitutional orders. It’s that simple. Not least, because what the Russians are doing here is not just about Ukraine. It’s about liberal modernity. And it’s about
the European security order. This does not stop at the western border of Ukraine, right? It is that simple. We are fighting for the preservation of liberal democracy in Europe when we support Ukraine, first off. That, unfortunately, as we’re seeing right now, limits our bandwidth a little bit with regard to countries like Georgia, where we have literally no leverage except for pretty sketchy partnership programs. And as long as we can’t help Ukraine win, you know, talking about EU membership or a NATO path for Georgia is frankly—would be dishonest, right?
But, yes. Do we have a strategic interest in, I think, bringing in the European periphery into the European security order? Of course we do. But given what we have now seen are quite limited means in the West, and that means including, alas, in this country—if I look at the parallel—sorry. Perilous state or powerless state of American ammunition stocks, I think we have to prioritize. And it’s very clear that Ukraine is the order of the day. And forgive me if I quote myself here, but we have the choice between two failing states on Europe’s eastern front, right? Europe—Russia is going swiftly downhill. And there may be nothing we can do about that. Ukraine, we can do something about. So that’s that.
As far as Hungary is concerned, and Poland, and other countries, yes, the European Union has leverage. And so far its ability to deploy that leverage has been limited. But it has been limited, I think, not for a lack of want of trying on the part of European institutions, but because powerful member states have prevented it. And that is true for Germany as well. I remember having a conversation with a friend the chancellery in 2011 saying, you realize, if you—have you read the Hungarian media law? There is now a translation on the market. If this continues in this vein, we are going to have huge trouble with Hungary. And my friend just looked at me and said, Constanze, but they secure us a majority in the European Parliament, right? And we’re paying for that now.
We’re paying for the incrementalism of that decade and for the lack of courage of that decade, and for the unwillingness to think the worst and then plan backwards from that. We are now confronted with perhaps not quite the worst, but something very, very bad, that could get a lot worse before it gets any better. And that is also something we have brought upon ourselves, in my view. So the responsibility is on us to make it better.
In, frankly, democracy in the EU, I’m not all that concerned about it, frankly, for the simple reason that I do think that the repository of representative democracy in this peculiar system remain the member states. And that, yes, there is always going to be a push and pull, particularly with a Commission that has in the past year of the war somewhat surprised itself and us by being rather more muscular than we thought it capable of being, right? We were joking about this in the green room, saying that when Ursula von der Leyen talked about a geopolitical commission, you know, people snorted, including me probably. (Laughter.) And that a lot of things have happened. If you don’t believe me, read the speech—read the China speech she gave last week. It’s really quite remarkably firm.
And so, yes. In other words, the balance of powers, right, and the role of the democratically legitimizing element in the sort of supra-federal level between the EU and the member state, is something that continually has to be rebalanced and renegotiated, right? In the same way that it has to be done in nation-states. But as long as democracies of the member states function, I’m less worried about that, to be honest.
FUKUYAMA: Actually, if I could just make a comment. So I’m also disappointed that the EU didn’t crack down on Hungary. I think they should have done this long ago. But I do think it’s had a good effect on Italy. You know, when Giorgia Meloni was—became prime minister coming out of the neofascist party, everybody was worried that they were going to go down a Hungarian path. And I think that she has been constrained by the money that, you know, Italy needs from the EU. And so actually that structure has been useful, in that case, in keeping people on the straight and narrow.
STELZENMÜLLER: We are spending awfully a long answering one question, but—
CONLEY: Well, it must have been a great question, and we will definitely come back to the room. I have to say, thirteen years of watching Hungary, there’s a cost of just that. And I think it has reduced Europe’s ability to—
STELZENMÜLLER: Well, plus the obvious—
CONLEY: This is the presider’s prerogative. I apologize for injecting. (Laughs.)
STELZENMÜLLER: The obvious corruption and the Chinese and Russian influence, right? It’s a congruent to that. Not just the EU, but in NATO. And I find that stunning.
CONLEY: Anyway. Oh, lots of questions. Fantastic. We’ll stay in the room here. Maybe we’ll bundle a few, if that’s OK, so we can get around the room. So I’m going to—the gentleman, the member there, and then back in the back as well. We’ll hit two questions at once.
Q: Hi. My name is Alex Yergin.
So just quickly, obviously you described the current media environment, how different it is from when you were growing up, just in terms of, shall we say, the diversity of sources. (Laughs.) In a way, I would argue it’s a bit of a back to the future, because in the nineteenth century every town in America and Europe I think had multiple newspapers, each of which were all aligned to specific political parties. So I guess my question is, even that this is the environment that we’re going to be living in probably forever now, what steps do you think people and civil society can take to sort of help, you know, the population deal with what is a very, very diverse media market?
CONLEY: Great question. And the gentleman in the back, please, over here. Thank you so much.
Q: Welby Leaman from Walmart.
Is there such a thing as a more populist, less-elitist, liberal democratic order? And is it necessary to dial towards the more populist side in order to rebuild social trust and political legitimacy? And in particular, is the very U.S.-centered critique of people like Michael Lind, who argue that sort of—or, even in the European context, a corporatist leader, institutional leadership class having used its market power over decision-making to prefer and to advantage not so much democratic values as its own pecuniary and other forms of interest—power-related interest? Is that applicable in the European context?
CONLEY: I love it. What’s the new balance. I love that question, and how do we manage—how do we manage this era of social media? Who wants to grab that one first?
FUKUYAMA: Well, I actually think that the big problem that we’ve been dealing with is actually the power of the big platforms. And there’s basically only three of them—Google, Meta, and Twitter. And it creates, you know, a very powerful ability to bias conversations in democracies. So although it’s the case that, you know, a lot of legacy media is divided by party and very segmented—well, you know, in a way, you’ve got both of those problems. That we are divided into these very small compartments, but there’s also this very large power that sits over all of them.
The European Commission has actually been much better than our authorities in trying to actually take on some of the power of the big platforms. But in a way, nobody really has a solution to this, because unless you could actually break them into smaller units, you know, that power—you know, I likened it to a gun that’s left on the table. And you’re hoping that the person sitting across the table from you isn’t going to pick it up and shoot you with it. But I don’t think that for a democracy that’s an adequate solution.
If I can toot my own horn, I led a Stanford working group on platform scale a couple of years ago, where, you know, what we were recommending was actually something we called middleware, where you would outsource the content mediation and function to a layer of competitive companies that could tailor the way that they filtered your information to your preferences, something we cannot do on the big platforms now, that would return the internet to something like what the original mission was, which was a competitive, you know, very diverse ecosystem, where you could have a lot of different opinions going. The problem with that is the business model, which we really never figured out because it’s not clear how much people were willing to pay for this. So I think it requires a kind of regulatory, you know, intervention to, you know, accomplish.
CONLEY: Does anyone—and is the Meloni model the model for that balance? Here you had someone who was very—you know, a populist messenger, but came into government with a very rambunctious coalition, moderated. Is that a—what’s a good example? I love that question, but what’s a new balance, a young—she’s a young woman, who definitely is a break from Italian politics. I don’t know, is that a model?
MATTHIJS: So the populism question is a very good question. And it goes to the previous question on the democratic deficit in the European Union, right? I mean, the way I—so, in 1992 Alan Milward wrote a book called The European Rescue of the Nation State. And it seems to me, as always with academic books, it was right, but it stopped being right the moment he published it. Because Maastricht and the single market and the single currency together put in place a very kind of strict, for lack of a better term, neoliberal, technocratic consensus that took away a lot of policy levers from member states, right? So you already had taken away trade policy. Now you took industrial policy. Now you took away monetary policy and, to some extent, fiscal policy.
So there’s very little governments could do to some of those—I mean, for lack of a better—let’s call them tradeoffs, right? I mean, Greece may want—may make different choices than Germany. And Spain may make different choices from Slovenia or France, right? So there has to be a way for member states to breathe, in policy terms, within that system. And so you kind of see some of the limits of that 1990s consensus around strict single market terms, because EU wants to do industrial policy to counter China and the United States, right, especially when it comes to the green transition. But that then means subsidizing certain companies that then takes away the level playing field that the single market is based on, and Margaret Thatcher insisted on in the 1980s.
Staying with the single currency and the fiscal rules, in that debate, as the IMF meetings are about to start, is very much alive and well. Where the Dutch and the Germans again insist on very strict kind of limits to what you can spend, and so on, which then doesn’t allow certain countries to do more. So I think there the EU slowly—and it’s never fast enough—but I think it’s taking the lessons from the last ten, fifteen years that it does need to allow for more flexibility. And next-generation EU is a tool that basically gives a lot of carrots, rather than just sticks, to governments, right? So there’s real money at stake now, especially for Italy. You’re talking about 80-100 billion euros, right, over a few years, which is a real carrot. And they’re willing to do certain reforms that they probably should be doing anyway.
But then going forward on the fiscal side, I think that’s where the battle will still need to be. And that’s where, of course, you can get into the intricacies of the German coalition, where you have an FDP that’s a very awkward partner and very unhappy within this coalition, because this is not what they were about—(laughs)—about spending lots of money on green and getting rid of fossil fuel cars, and so on—but will now insist on because they feel like their voters insist on it too. And so, I mean, in think in the end you have to allow, for lack of a better term, for a bit more populism, in the sense that different member states will want different things. As long as you stay true to the fundamental principles of liberal democracy, right, being rule of law and the community of values that the EU is about and makes it still a very attractive thing to join for Ukraine, Moldova, and the Western Balkans.
CONLEY: Just as there’s sort of a patriot positive nationalism, I think you’re positing that there can be a positive populism, potentially, and opening of that aperture.
I’m going to inject one question, then go back to the audience, and then we can wrap up. Something Constanze has raised I think is quite—the role of identity in liberal democracy. Because I think this pulls on some of—the identity question is very much at the forefront, perhaps being challenged by the social media landscape, globalization. The sense of who I am, and who in an election is threatening my existence, my right to believe the values and the traditions and what I believe in. How do we wrestle with that identity question? Because in, you know, I hate to say this, Prime Minister Orbán, in some ways, created a political narrative based on identity and fighting for that identity. And that may not get your very far, but that’s gotten him far for thirteen years. And he’s perfected that. And others are replicating that model, here in the U.S. and elsewhere. How do you tackle identity in that question? Anybody want to throw in on that?
STELZENMÜLLER: Let me perhaps—
CONLEY: OK. You started it. You can finish it.
STELZENMÜLLER: Well, I also want to reference the other questions. Very briefly, on the—on the media question, it seems to me that what we’re learning from the very public debacle of Twitter is that the free—the free market version of the agora requires regulation. And what we’re seeing now in real time is what happens when those regulatory mechanisms are deliberately destroyed, right?
And that in fact the free market model of the agora doesn’t work, right, if you don’t do that. That is fascinating. But of course, you—what we’re also learning is that somebody needs to regulate the regulators, right? There needs to be some sort of governance oversight over corporations regulating the agora. I mean this, to me, is, actually, I think, a teachable moment, right, for modern democracies in many ways. So much for that. We—I’m sorry, we could go—we could spend hours on this, but that’s, I think, the best thing I have to say.
On populism, I agree that it’s an important question. But I am sort of much less sanguine that there is such a thing as a positive populism. What I would say is that—for the simple reason that I am, perhaps as a German—you know, have been paying very careful attention to populist movements both in this country, and in Europe, and in my own country, Germany. And I have to say, there are some extremely dark corners there, right? And again, I refer back to my original point, cruelty, right? A lot of it is about re-legitimizing cruelty as a method of, as it were, you know, running a modern society. And that—so that, I have to say, I will fight till my last day.
The way I would rephrase the question is how can we make democracies more truly representative and inclusive? How can we ensure that there are not population groups who are permanently excluded, or who are excluded for discriminatory reasons? How can we prevent the oligarchization of politics, of corporations, of governing bodies, whether at the municipal level or at the federal level? That I think is the task of governance. It’s very complicated, right?
And we for a long time had a culture of deference towards the technocrats, right, and towards the sort of establishment Washington consensus. That, I think, really does need—I think needs to be critiqued. And where politics and factions, to use the term of the framers, sort of need to be brought back, you know, to their natural role. Which is that they are absolutely crucial for establishing and articulating voter consent, right? I’m sorry, I’m being very theoretical here, but, I mean, that, I think is where we are, right? And so I think the sort of—this search for a positive populism to me is a—I mean, to me, that’s a chimera, if I’m honest, right?
And then on the identity question, you know, I mean, arguably what you’ve just said about Orbán, Putin would claim for himself as well, right?
CONLEY: I think Putin followed Orbán’s lead.
STELZENMÜLLER: Exactly. And I’ve been hearing sort of Israeli visitors saying, you know, everybody’s recommending the Hungarian model to us. Is that what we should be doing? And I have to say, when I was
asked that in an internal meeting, I sort of lost it and said: Well, if you want to create a one-party state, you know, with the abrogation of political parties and political pluralism and separate and balance of powers, be my guest. But I would suggest that history shows—and my country is exhibit A for that—is that that doesn’t end well.
CONLEY: So I have one lightning round question because we have two minutes left and we’re going to end very promptly. Do liberal democracies have a special role to play vis-à-vis an authoritarian? And I’m—I always like to say I always like to start with the news, I’m going to end with the news. Did President Macron have a special responsibility, as a liberal democracy, dealing with Beijing or do they not? Do liberal democracies have a special purpose in addressing authoritarians?
CONLEY: That was fast. Would you care to elaborate?
STELZENMÜLLER: Well, I mean—
CONLEY: Quickly. Quick elaboration, and then we’ll go down the line.
STELZENMÜLLER: Well, for—sure. Look, I mean, I think what we’ve seen, right, is that the authoritarians are repressive towards their own populations and very often develop imperial ambitions, sometimes just to hide the fact that they are failing to provide governance for their own populations, and sometimes because they think that is what they are owed, right, because they’re—you know, because cultivating resentment and grievances is what fuels—is what fuels consent in the absence of sort of more material, tangible benefits. And I think—but it isn’t enough then to invoke, you know, the hallowed principles of Greek and Roman and Lockean, and whatnot, constitutional thinking. What you have to do is live the truth, which is that you can make democracy work and that that will be supported by voter consent. And as long as we are failing that, I think lecturing authoritarians is not going to go very well.
CONLEY: Matthias, last word.
MATTHIJS: It was very difficult for Macron to go and lecture his Chinese counterparts, as he keeps using the same article in the French Constitution to push through legislation that doesn’t have a majority in his own assembly, right? So that said, I mean, Europe very cleverly talks about de-risking its strategy with China rather than decoupling. But de-risking, and you go—and of course, Scholz did this, Sanchez did this earlier. If you travel with a huge business delegation, who’s all about doing business deals with China, then you make yourself more codependent, right? And so that’s probably sending the wrong message at the wrong time, right? So if his vision of strategic autonomy—and strategic autonomy is quickly becoming the new neoliberalism, right? It’s, like, a term that everybody loves to hate, or something.
But if the hope is to have a more reliable European pillar that can stan on its own, then you have to become truly strategically autonomous, right? And that includes being that from China. But that—he was not—at this moment, I think he was happy to leave France, because he’s had a tough very few weeks, right? But I think the message he was hoping to send across of EU unity with Von der Leyen on the spousal program, where she was not treated red carpet treatment and he was, I think sent—I mean, the optics were terrible. But to your answer—to your question, yes, liberal democracies do have a special responsibility.
CONLEY: Frank, I’m giving you the benediction.
FUKUYAMA: Yeah. Well, of course. I mean, I think if you don’t have solidarity among liberal democracies and mutual support, you’re not going to have liberal democracy. And I think, you know, Macron does not understand the way that China has changed over the last few years. It’s not just Washington that’s causing the
problem in the relationship. You know, the responsibility for that really does lie in Beijing. And I think we need to call that out if you’re a democratic leader.
CONLEY: Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you for joining today’s meeting and thank you so much to Constanze Stelzenmüller, Francis Fukuyama, and Matthias Matthijs for a great conversation. Please note that the video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. And for those of you in person, you get lunch. So please join us for lunch. But now, please join me in thanking our great panelists. And thanks so much for our members for joining us online. (Applause.)