Europeans need a sense of control

Interview to By Andrei Alexandru Micu.

”To reduce Euroscepticism, European citizens need to get back a sense of control, trust that their votes and voices matter.”


  1. The Scandinavian model of democracy is far-away acknowledged for its welfare paradigm. How is this system of social protection performing so irreproachably?

It is hardly performing quite perfectly anywhere. I think the key to the success of the Scandinavian model has been its humane conception of freedom, an understanding that a human being cannot be fully free unless they can count on their most basic needs being met, no matter what. But in the age of globalisation, states are struggling to keep up their welfare standards that people have got used to during the last few decades.

A major flaw in the Finnish welfare system has been its inflexibility, it tends to favor inaction compared to any activities short of a full time job: it is considered to be generous for those who do not work at all, but owning a company, even if it brings in very little income, or earning a little through short term contracts has led to the unemployed or underemployed losing their benefits. So the system has been discouraging people from working a little or trying to get back to their feet when full time work is not available. This is what is being addressed by the current experiment of basic income, a welfare check that is not affected when the recipient earns some extra money.

Given that more and more traditional full time workplaces are disappearing, this might be the model for the future. But even in Finland, despite the broad optimistic international media coverage of the experiment, it is still far from being realized as a general practice. So even here, the system is still not perfect, but at least it tries to save all people from the worst, from hunger and homelessness.

  1. Both Baltic and Scandinavian cooperation schemes are consistent patterns of sustainable cooperation? Which good practices may be implemented by the EU members, adopted from these Nordic experiences?

There are quite some differences between the countries in the North, there is no single “social contract” to be identified in the region. The Baltic countries do not have as generous welfare systems as the Scandinavian countries do, it is also a question of living standard and GDP. There are better and worse policies in all of them and we can all learn something from each other.

But given that we all are developing in the same direction, with digitalisation and robotisation radically changing the work markets of the future, I believe a new approach will be needed in all of the developed world to avoid creating hordes of “superfluous” people (about which, indeed, Hannah Arendt talked already with reference to the economic crisis early in the 20th century). Some sort of basic income will eventually have to be implemented in all European countries. The change is happening already, but when it comes to mortgages and rental contracts etc., people are still expected to have steady jobs and incomes, identifiable employers. In practice there are more and more people who do not have this, and who still are creative and capable in many ways.

  1. How is the present trend of far-right and Euroscepticism mélange influencing the way the European Union functions?

I think the effect of the current trend can be much more radical than we dare to expect at the moment – but it does not have to be. Discussing this, we should be careful in defining what we mean by “far right”. True Fascist, neo-Nazi movements are still small and marginal in Europe. The so-called populist parties, often skeptical of immigration and/or Euro-skeptical, that may promote some xenophobic rhetoric and policy, are not necessarily far right, indeed those parties are often economically on the left, protectionist and social-democratic. I do not see a serious threat of truly Nazi-like parties rising in Europe right now, there is hardly a risk of falling into the kind of heavily ideological totalitarianism that destroyed much of Europe in the 1930s.

Speaking for tighter border controls or more restrictive asylum policy per se does not automatically make political forces “far-right”. There is a difference between whipping up hatred against certain groups of people and calls for more controlled and limited immigration that we may or may not agree with, but that fall into the limits of legitimate political discussion in any democracy. We should be careful to see that difference.

If mainstream and liberal parties refuse to discuss the economic, social and security problems associated with uncontrolled migration, they indirectly encourage people who do worry for such things to vote for the populist, Euro-skeptical right. If this trend continues, the consequences for Europe may indeed be unpredictable. What if after Britain, France and the Netherlands will also want to exit the Union? If several large member states will be leaving, the EU might indeed actually fall apart – which would be a disaster for the smaller and weaker members. And even if they won’t, widely expressed popular opinion against the EU compromises the Union’s democratic legitimacy and thus its strength.

The way the EU’s leaders handled the Brexit vote was not encouraging – they only blamed the brexiteers, there was no reflection about what the EU might need to do differently. To avoid a further disintegration of Europe, the mainstream parties will need to be more attentive to people’s concerns about their homelands’ sovereignty, about immigration and its impact, about security and terrorism, and about the economy. More genuine dialogue between Brussels and member states, and between political elites and the electorates, is the best medicine against the rise of undemocratic, hateful populism in any European country.

  1. Taking into account the proximity of elections throughout Europe, do you see these political parties as being able to perform in the public choice?

2017 will be a very interesting year for Europe. It is really hard to predict the outcome of elections – I belong to those who did not believe that Brexit would win, or that Mr. Trump would win the presidency of the United States. So I will not try to predict if Marine Le Pen can become the president of France or if Angela Merkel will be re-elected in Germany. And even if the Euro-skeptical parties will strengthen their positions, we do not know what it would mean in practice.

At best, it could just bring along somewhat more restrictive immigration policies, but no dramatic changes in the political system. If, on the other hand, the undermining of the liberal democratic institutions and the rule of law that we currently see in Poland, for example, will also spread to Western Europe, the stakes for European democracy as such are much higher. Also, if parties that are obviously friendly with the current regime in Russia will gain more power, they might try to deliberately undermine European unity and cooperation in many fields, including foreign and security policy.

  1. Do you distinguish any difference between patriotism and nationalism? If yes, how is multiculturalism influenced by the militant nationalism?

These terms are all tricky and have been overused and abused in many ways. “Nationalism” is a term that has been used too much to beat up small nations for refusing to be swallowed up by bigger ones, so I am skeptical of the term itself, its negative sound. The Soviet-occupied small nations were called nationalist, even militantly nationalist, for wanting to leave the big bear’s embrace – but at the same time no one accused Russia of nationalism while they were not only preserving their own Soviet-Russian national culture but also imposing it on others.

We often forget that most EU member states are small nation states, too often their willingness to preserve their cultural identity is seen as something negative. So it is really important to see a difference, again, between xenophobia and closed ethnic nationalism on the one hand and a healthy pride in one’s own cultural identity or a willingness to preserve it on the other – even though it inevitably remains debatable where exactly we draw the line. Patriotism for me is more related to states, nationalism to nations or ethnic groups. Neither is better or worse per se, both are healthy to a degree and bad if pushed too far and pursued fanatically.

As for multiculturalism, it is also a tricky term – if we mean by it the fact of ethnic and cultural diversity, there is no reason at all why such diversity would have to conflict with patriotism, or loyalty to a nation state one lives in. If, on the other hand we mean by multiculturalism an ideology that promotes, in the name of cherishing cultural difference, parallel legal systems within a country or allowing or even encouraging practices that are contradict the laws of the country in question and individual rights, then “multiculturalism” indeed may be unpatriotic.

If by “militant nationalism” you mean movements for ethnic homogeneity and xenophobia, then this trend contradicts not just multiculturalism as described above, but also diversity as such, making “different” people feel unwanted and unwelcome. I think there is a degree of this in every European country. But such pursuit of homogeneity usually goes after not only ethnic or cultural “others”, but also the “wrong” kind of people, like gays, independent women or people with wrong political ideas, within one’s own ethnic and cultural group. So the answer to such attitude is not necessarily “multiculturalism” but openness, equality, liberty in a broader sense.

  1. What is your opinion on the instrumentalization of the refugees’ crisis? Do we talk about a full concordance with the human rights?

I’d ask back, who is instrumentalizing the crisis? Politicians? Human trafficers are certainly doing it. The migration and refugee crisis is a huge issue, it is really overwhelming for Europe and the world. There are genuine contradictions that will need to be solved – between human rights, individual asylum rights, states’ capacities, integration and cultural identity issues, security issues etc. There seems to be a quite wide consensus now that just opening the borders of Europe was not the best possible solution to the ongoing crisis. The countries that insisted on identifying and registering the migrants first, like Hungary, were harshly criticized at first, but now mainstream politicians in even the most generous countries are discussing similar measures.

We have seen that the open border policy led to us helping mostly young men who were able to pay the criminal smugglers, many of them not war refugees, while we have miserably failed many of the most vulnerable people who remained in the camps in Turkey and the Middle East. The EU has still not done enough to stop the human trafficing that led to more than 5000 people’s death last year. We’ve seen that hostile individuals, including ISIS members, have been able to enter Europe with the unchecked flow of people. Now it is accepted to discuss alternative routes, like investing in the camps to make them liveable, more efficient border controls and increasing the number of refugees to be taken in via the UN system that offers countries a better chance to select who is allowed to enter, like e.g. Canada has done.

It is most important to end the conflicts that cause people to flee, but while this is not happening, Europe should discuss burden sharing with the Arab countries that have not yet contributed much to solving the crisis, and eventually focus more on helping the most vulnerable groups and people when dealing with the crisis, the persecuted minorities, women and children. At the same time legitimate concerns about the impact of mass migration on the cultural and even political identities of the receipient countries must be taken seriously, we should not leave that discussion to the populist fringe only.

  1. You are a declared “proponent of humanism and liberal democratic values”. What does this concept mean to you?

The very basics many of us agree are worth protecting, beginning with the Enlightenment humanist values, individual rights and liberties, freedom of speech, political freedoms. The rule of law, constitutional representative democracy. Respect for the individual, human dignity. Values that seemed to be self-evident at least in the West – but we cannot take them for granted.

  1. Is the Schengen Agreement dismantled by the international terrorism? How is the open-border system supposed to face the pressure from this phenomenon?

The Schengen Agreement has not been dismantled yet, but it has been temporarily suspended on several European borders, due to the threat of terrorism and the pressure of mass migration. Eventually the possibility of restoring and preserving open borders within Europe will depend on an efficient control of Europe’s external borders, we have seen that open external and internal borders together constitute a major security risk. Once the movement of people will be more under control, I guess that an efficient cooperation and exchange of information between the authorities of different European countries will be more important than tighter internal border controls that have a negative impact on the economy, and travel conditions of all Europeans.

  1. Is there any feasible strategy for handling security dysfunctionalities without losing our integrationist ideology?

It is true that terrorist attacks in European countries have fed Euro-skepticism in other European countries – but in the end I do not believe that European integration is first of all a security issue. The recent attacks in France, Belgium, Germany, speak about security failures in those countries, and these are serious things, as granting the citizens’ security is one of the most important tasks of any state. But I think that the biggest challenges to European integration are elsewhere: the economy, the Euro, the free movement of workforce, the sovereignty of decision making about all things from lamp bulbs to taxes to migration issues.

I believe European integration would eventually win if the EU stopped pushing for further integration for a while, perhaps even returned some decision making to member states, about issues that are reasobable to decide locally. To reduce Euroskepticism, European citizens need to get back a sense of control, trust that their votes and voices matter. Defying a perceived Brussels diktat was a major motivating force behind Brexit, and to avoid further disintegration, European leaders should not dismiss that warning signal as just ignorant stupidity. So I guess we need to let go of the „integrationist ideology” a bit, in order to stay on the track of integration. One of many paradoxes of life.

  1. Digital society is one of the most debate-creating topics due to the nuanced visions on it. What is your point on the influence of the most recent breakthrough on society?

This is another major topic that we could have a long discussion about. I have been involved in promoting the Estonian e-state for a while, and also Finland is technologically advanced. We already take many things for granted, like banking and handling documents online. But I also believe we are only starting to see the challenges we create for ourselves. A vision of a world where all services are offered by robots seems a bit eerie, and even though I’ve been totally addicted to my iPhones for years, I heartily welcome little Luddite backlashes to digitalization such as the return of the commercial success of vinyl records (I still use CD-s) and books printed on paper.

We should not lose the human touch, and we cannot ignore the physical world – not everything can be taken care of by mobile apps. We may dream about self-driving cars, but when it snows outside, we still need to take out a good old spade and remove the heaps of snow to get moving at all. And, getting back to the beginning of the interview, we now really need radically brave visions of a new work life and economic compensation systems when more and more jobs are delegated to robots. And we’ll need lots of new rules and regulations in related matters: e.g. now that drones are entering mass markets, should we have rules about their flying around near and among people, filming them, making noise, in the wrong hands possibly even causing damage? We’ll have many of such new questions to answer, questions we quite recently had never thought of. The rapid development we are in the midst of, is both a blessing and a curse.

  1. What can you tell us about participatory democracy? Is the information revolution stimulating public participation in governance?

I studied, for my PhD thesis I defended in 2006, theories of participatory democracy, and their critique of classical, constitutional liberal democracy as too elitist, inegalitarian. But I did not really find any convincing arguments against liberal constitutionalism as the most efficient guarantee that all people are treated equally, with their individual rights respected – and that is the default position without which no collective decision making can be egalitarian or fair. So I remain a proponent of constitutional, representative democracy with equal individual rights as its unconditional framework. It is ironic that participatory democracy has often been promoted by the academic Left, but when you actually practice it, when people are given a say in referenda, then often the result is not left-wing or „progressive” – of which Brexit was a perfect example.

I would not put too much emphasis on the means. The Internet gives us unprecedented possibilities of participation in discussions and campaigns in real time, around the world. But when I hear that it was the „fault” of social media that Donald Trump got elected, I do not agree. It is people who make their decisions, and people can be influenced by any means. With our current fast and wide electronic public spheres it is easier to spread misinformation and propaganda, but it is also easier to respond to it, to present facts and counterarguments.

Of course we should make better use of the new possibilities we have created, like crowdsourcing for ideas or discussing actual policy proposals online – up here we have some official electronic fora for such things – instead of the banal and often abusive comments sections that too many people seem to spend too much of their time on, or instead of keeping to our online „bubbles” where members safely agree about everything. But probably all those fora belong to current democracy, they all have a place in it. None of them, however, can replace the classical institutions that any well-functioning democracy is made of, parliaments and elections and rights and courts.

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