change header

Europe must rediscover its identity

| May 21, 2017

The rise of radical political forces across Europe, the prolonged euro crisis and financial support of Greece, mass migration, sporadic terror attacks, and the unstable Balkans are all symptoms of today’s deepening political, economic and cultural crisis in the western world. Some of these threats may be aggravated by external factors, but their very root is the self-defeating nature of western civilization itself.

“It is a dangerous combination to be rich and appear weak at the same time,” said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, referring to Europe’s inability to protect her own borders and control an unprecedented wave of mass migration. Europe and the United States still lead the world economy and drive technology markets, despite the 2008 crisis. But inaction in the face of the migration crisis is causing uneasiness and vexation, and mass migration is not the only problem challenging Europe.

The continent also struggles to find a response to a destabilized Ukraine and the menace of the Islamic State, the economic tribulations of an ongoing euro crisis and the unknowns of Brexit, bringing the withdrawal of the EU’s second largest economy. These are significant challenges, yet historically the western world has seen much worse and has managed to overcome. So why is it that the West appears weaker today? The core problem, many say, lies in the absence of a coherent vision guiding the defense of our borders and traditional values. In the face of such challenges, we find little help in the doubt and division over who we are and what we represent. The West is experiencing an identity crisis, and it makes us appear unstable and insecure to the rest of the world.

Where does this crisis of identity come from? Much of it is self-inflicted. The West ushered in an era of change and modernity, building support for our millennial values – a sacrosanct liberalism based on unbridled individual liberty – while losing touch with the core of our Judeo-Christian values. Now these traditional values are wrapped in stigma and wrongfully associated with radical beliefs, leading to our identity crisis and ultimately self-defeat. We have played up liberalism to such an extent that we are shaming conservatism into the closet.

Consider the extreme, judicial activism of the European Court of Human Rights. The body has elevated the rights of refugees over those of European citizens, without a strong grounding in the existing bylaws. The ECHR’s recent decisions granting undocumented refugees the right to resist staying in camps while awaiting the asylum application process has come at the sake of the rights of European citizens. One of the results is that member states of the Schengen Area have returned to border checks to counter illegal border crossings and boost security, bringing back long lines for commuters and travelers. Law-abiding citizens of the European Union endure the sacrifice of one of the greatest achievements of the Union: borderless free movement.

The failure to protect one of our most precious achievements, or worse yet, the failure to understand the value in the stability and prosperity achieved by the nations of Europe is startling. History tells us that, at the core of our European Union, the most successful and enduring development of the West has been the nation state and the social contract: the pledge of security, economic growth, and freedom.

Combine nation states with the concept of democracy, private property, and rule of law and you have the most prosperous western export. Western democracy, created in Europe by figures like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau and modified in the Americas by Jefferson and Franklin, have created a system of government that has been adopted by over a hundred nations worldwide. The strength and genius of the western, democratic nation state has triumphed over extreme ideologies such as Nazism and Communism.  The West built a system of government with our common values at its core, and it has shaped the course of history.

Recent decades, however, have not been kind to the strong nation state, and the people are feeling it. The underlying causes are political: party and group identity, the media’s role in setting the agenda, the deliberate demolition of heritage in academic circles and institutions. A fault line has emerged. Pride in culture and country has been denounced as nationalism and replaced by shame. Patriotism has been substituted with globalism.

People have grown disappointed in the ruling elite and political parties of their states as well as international bodies, a dissatisfaction evident in the success of Brexit, Donald Trump’s candidacy and the popularity of le Pen. In these examples, voters went for untested political approaches instead of the traditional, moderate platforms with hopes to bring about far-reaching change and undermine the elite. In France, 46 percent of the votes in the first round of the presidential election were cast in favor of Euroscepticism and against the free market.

We “should be the advocate and flagship of a Europe, where there is a room for our Christian identity, our national pride, there is a room for our traditional family values and our workfare societies,” said Prime Minister Orbán at the EPP Congress in Malta in March. The prime minister’s critics label him populist. But if giving voice to the will of the people is populism, then perhaps it should not be feared.

Europe and the rest of the West need a boost of confidence to rediscover our identity and once again build a connection with culture, patriotism, and tradition – a connection to our people. We must learn to be proud again if we want to be strong again.