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The Fall of the Liberal Project Jan Zielonka

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberal ideals have defined Europe’s political order. The European Union itself was seen not only as an engine of wealth, but also as an ethical power spreading liberal norms throughout the world. No longer. Liberal ideals are now under fire from Helsinki to Athens.

There are many variations of the anti-liberal surge, and populism is not confined to the obvious examples in Hungary, Greece or Poland. UKIP’s Nigel Farage triumphed in the Brexit referendum and Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party of Austria are in coalition government. Populist parties prop up governments in Denmark and Finland. Even in Germany, the right-wing nationalist party Alternative for Germany have nearly a hundred seats in the Bundestag.

The liberal project’s failures

Populists are not gaining votes due to their own strengths but rather because of liberalism’s failings. The list of liberal faults since 1989 is long and worrying: rises in inequalities, political scandals, tax-dodging, social spending cuts. Elections have failed to generate genuine change: power alternates between the same parties, the same programmes, and the same cast of politicians. European integration, which used to be a flagship of the liberal project, has become a symbol of austerity, stagnation and conflict: the Euro has exacerbated the divide between surplus and deficit countries, the importers and exporters, and the North and South. One should not be surprised that voters have begun to desert liberal parties and search for alternatives, however untested and controversial.

What is to be done?

As a lifelong liberal, I am profoundly disappointed by the current predicament. Liberals must stop finger-pointing: liberty is not going to prevail in an atmosphere of hate directed against political opponents, and trust cannot be regained by accusing voters of being misled or making bad electoral choices.

I am not proposing we storm the modern equivalents of the Winter Palace, be it Canary Wharf in London or La Défense in Paris. However, I want to urge liberals to stop, if not reverse, the neo-liberal policies of deregulation and privatisation. Taxes should be imposed, those breaking laws and regulations should be held accountable. Not all ideas (a universal minimum wage, worker representation) will work, but far better to experiment than to allow economic injustices to persist.

Experiments should also be embraced in the field of democracy. The old liberal fondness for centralised institutionalism no longer works. Liberals need to offer a bold plan for reinvigorating the EU, embracing pluralism and flexibility in a complex and ever-changing environment. Different policy fields require different types of membership, different modes of engagement, and different mixtures of incentives and sanctions.

Liberalism will only bounce back if it appeals to young people, which means that the new vision of the open society ought to look forward rather than back. Liberalism should be, and be seen to be, the force for progress and innovation. When I was young, liberalism was a seductive idea, but over the years its sex appeal has rapidly diminished.

Jan Zielonka is Professor of European Politics and Ralf Dahrendorf Fellow, St Antony's College

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