Europe
Can liberalism survive the backlash? Globalisation and identity in a shaken world.

 

28

January, 2017

Trying to put the key events of 2016 into a framework of understanding seems like a mammoth task. The vast range of events in different political spheres, whether these be legal, political, economic or financial, or in many other realms, all happened in their own contexts, with their own distinct set of causes.

How will Europe respond to the triggering of Article 50, and where are the red lines in the negotiations?

But one thing is for sure – something often took for granted has been shaken, and shaken significantly, and many point to recent events as a challenge to the liberal order based on a capitalist democracy. This can be easily characterised as a backlash, after the basic tenets of the liberal order had been accepted for so many years, but a more difficult question is – a backlash against what? If the recent events, particularly in the political sphere, have shaken the liberal order, what was it about that order that caused such a reaction?

The shocks of 2016 have meant that questioning how we organise public life has become a broader exercise much more loosely tied to the fundamentals many took for granted. Taking Europe as a case study for our investigations into the reasons behind these shocks from the four perspectives, the fact that few predicted the outcome of the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU has the myriad of different options mooted around the government’s Brexit strategy. This highlights the effect of how shock allows the redefinition of the range of politically feasible responses – from free-trade deals to custom unions, from the single market to hard and soft approaches. How will Europe respond to the triggering of Article 50, and where are the red lines in the negotiations?

Why focus on globalisation when analysing Europe? Or, more precisely, why take Europe as a case study to find out if it is really globalisation that has caused supposed backlash against liberalism? Europe as political concept has in many senses been a changing and continual response to globalisation, whether it’s been about protecting member states from its adverse effects or encouraging them to make the most of the economic opportunities that the increasing interconnectedness of world creates. The European Union’s roots as a political entity were in the trade deals designed to prevent conflict after the horrific effects of the Second World War. Initially prioritising the advantages of intertwining the key materials of war (starting with Coal and Steel), the then European Community saw regionalisation as an answer to globalisation, with integration often being seen as an answer to foreign competition.

However, more recent events, whether that be challenges to the EU Schengen Agreement, Brexit or the election of Donald Trump in in the United States, have been characterised as globalisation impacting not only how the European Union has to respond economically, but how the identity of Europe is at stake. How European citizens see themselves, as members of a voluntary association of sovereign states working together where interests align, or as members of an entity that seeks to promote common interests on the continent. Questions of the impact of identity can be dismissed as arbitrary factors in decision making, or ignored when branded as populism, but an understanding why people see themselves in a certain way, and how globalisation has impacted this, seems like the best path to avoid another shaken world in 2017. How has globalisation affected identity in Europe, or has how citizens see themselves always tempered the effects of interconnectedness?

The importance of these two factors in explaining the backlash against liberalism can be traced through the four perspectives we have chosen to focus on at Warwick Congress. Public life is analysed, understood and often reconstructed through the lenses of politics, economics, finance and law, and their interplay is what makes changes such as globalisation such complex issues. The question of in what form liberalism will survive will depend not only on the key political processes of the day, but how these processes are governed by the rule of law – shown most clearly by the Supreme Court’s dealings regarding the triggering of Article 50. Economic liberalism has given rise to the financialisation of global markets – which have played a huge part in how citizens have lived, as well as perceived globalisation.

These four perspectives, and crucially the relations between them, are where the future of Europe will be decided, which will deliver the verdict on liberalism after the challenges of globalisation and identity.

 

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