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Interview
Public debate

Marc Lazar

Democracy is being questioned everywhere in Europe

2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism. On the occasion of this anniversary, a regional series is taking place in Germany and the Czech Republic combining debates, exhibitions, screenings and live performances. Marc Lazar, a professor at Sciences Po, political historian, sociologist and specialist in Italian history who spoke in Prague on 7th February as part of the “1989-2019 series, Europe’s Pathways”, turns his gaze on contemporary Europe.

Updated on 07/06/2019

5 min

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Marc Lazar is a political historian, a sociologist and a specialist in Italian history.
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Marc Lazar is a political historian, a sociologist and a specialist in Italian history.
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CC BY-SA 2.0

How is Europe doing 30 years after the revolutions of 1989? Where are we in the democratisation process?

Firstly, there is a positive track record of democratisation with the integration of the countries liberated from Communist dictatorships and a greater awareness of the European reality. However, there remain some misunderstandings, linked in particular to the difficulty the countries of Western Europe have had when it comes to understanding what their neighbours experienced under Communist rule. And now that we are 30 years on from the fall of the communist regimes, democracy is being questioned on all sides: on the Western side, we are aware of its fragility, while Central and Eastern Europe are struggling to come to make freedom work for them.

 

From vote to vote, the participation rate for European elections continues to decrease. Is this worrisome for democracy?

The low participation rate in European elections and the increase in votes for protest parties, which are sometimes also populist, demonstrates a profound unease regarding democratic representation. This reflects the social and economic suffering in many European countries and, in addition, the crisis of the two major models of immigration integration: the crisis of the multicultural model on the one hand, and the crisis of the French Republican model on the other. All this has resulted in a desire which is two-fold: on the one hand, there is a small but real desire for more authority – not to be confused with authoritarianism – and the idea that there might be other regimes more beneficial to life in society than democracy. On the other hand, there is a demand for greater transparency, rigour and democratic participation.

Italy is a kind of seismograph. What is happening there at the moment is not an anomaly, it is not an outlier, it is an expression of a very deep political and social crisis.

Several European countries are now led by coalitions which include a far-right party. How do you analyse the coming to power of populist nationalists?

The rise of extremist parties to power reveals renewed nationalism. This nationalism is a reaction against globalisation, from which the poorest populations have suffered. Furthermore, nationalist-populist parties know how to exploit the identity tensions surrounding immigration and Islam. Finally, Europe is often seen as undemocratic and, especially in the West, is synonymous with austerity rather than prosperity, with social difficulties rather than social protection. These parties benefit from this and have a tendency to reinforce these perceptions.

           

The Italian government is made up of an unprecedented coalition between two populist anti-European and anti-immigration parties: the League and the 5 Star Movement. Is this political situation indicative of Europe’s future?

Italy is a kind of seismograph. What is happening there at the moment is not an anomaly, it is not an outlier, it is an expression of a very deep political and social crisis, coupled with a cultural question about what it means to be Italian. And as is very often the case, what is happening in Italy is being repeated elsewhere, with different methods. For example, Berlusconism has spread to the United States: Berlusconi was certainly a predecessor of Donald Trump's…

The conference series in which you participated in February evokes a "Europe of values". Can we talk about "European values" today?

Right now, there is a temptation to retreat, to embrace the xenophobia that is shaking up European societies and endangering our Judeo-Christian humanist values, in this case republican and secular values. We need to return to the European values of solidarity, democracy, social justice, social protection, respect for pluralism, etc. As we can see in France with the “yellow vest” movement, social groups that are marginalised and impoverished by the economic situation now see these values as nothing but a deceptive trick when compared to the realities they are experiencing. 2019, which marks 30 years from the fall of the Berlin Wall and 40 years from the first election at the European Parliament, will probably be a crucial year.

 

Now that the migrant crisis has revealed a lack of unity in Europe and the rescue vessel Aquarius remains in port, who upholds these European values?

It is the task of the Member States and the European Union to uphold its values, but the European Union no longer seems capable of creating a narrative, of carrying the European project. All too often, we only bother acknowledge that Europe has allowed us to preserve peace. But the European project was also about full employment, prosperity and social protection. Today, there is certainly peace, but terrorism plagues us, full employment has not been maintained, prosperity no longer exists and social protections have been curtailed. The European Union must reinvent a discourse and develop a new strategy.

In this context, the people who can support and reinvent these values are figures from civil society. But they are divided between pro and anti-European. 2019 will see a battle between those who no longer believe in this political, social, economic and cultural Europe, and those who continue to defend the need for the European project in the face of the United States, China and Russia.

Today, there is certainly peace, but terrorism plagues us, full employment has not been maintained, prosperity no longer exists and social protections have been curtailed.

What does it mean to be on the left today in Europe?

In the 1990’s, the Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio argued that what separated the left and the right was the value of equality. I believe that this distinction is still relevant. Being left-wing today means thinking that alongside freedom lies the need for social equality, which does not mean – or no longer means – egalitarianism. It means defending public actions that correct natural inequalities and reconciling freedom with equal opportunity. We could also respond with Émile Durkheim’s description of socialism. Being left-wing means paying attention to the cries of pain and suffering of the poorest.

 

What is the place of communism in this political landscape?

Communism as a political party and as a regime is finished. It belongs to the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What is not over, however, is a certain communist culture, what in one of my books I called “the communist passion.” In the East, the most vulnerable populations remain nostalgic for communism. In the West, there is still a legacy of an anti-American, anti-capitalist, communist culture which hates reformism and is still eager for a revolutionary alternative. This heritage is not reflected politically, but it works in Western European societies culturally.

The Institut français and the project

The regional series dedicated to the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has two components: “89 Facing the Present”, in Berlin, opened on 31st January at the Night of Ideas, and “1989-2019, Europe's Pathways” in Prague. They will be followed by a regional forum in Berlin in Autumn 2019.

 

These discussions are supported by the Institut français as part of the D'Alembert Fund.

L'institut français, LAB