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Don't Consider the West Finished Too Early
Online Interviews
An interview with Roland Freudenstein (Deputy Director, Wilfried Martens Centre) by Gellért Rajcsányi.

Liberal democracy has this amazing quality of bouncing back when you least expect it. And now we are at such a point, says Roland Freudenstein, Deputy Director of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies. Mr Freudenstein gave a lecture about the future of the liberal democracy in Budapest, this interview was made on this occasion.


Now it is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As a German, how do you remember this event?

Personally I slept through it, shamefully. I did not realize what was happening because I did not watch television that night. I woke up next morning, went to work and then I got phone calls from journalists, so I realized what had happened. There was a change in the air, but that day was a dramatic event, a positive surprise. In a wider context, what the fall of the Berlin Wall meant to Germany. Helmut Kohl, chancellor of West Germany on the night of 9th November was in Warsaw, meeting Lech Walesa. As he heard that the wall had come down and Germany might be reunified, Kohl said: "Wait, this is gonna take years, a long time". And it took less than one year. I think Germans were overwhelmed by the events, the tectonic changes in Europe. The communism, the Eastern Block in Europe collapsed. The prospect of the German unification was a hope of a minority. I myself did not see it as a possibility, as a strategic policy of Germany until the summer of 1989. There was a certain hesitation by the West Germans to jump to conclusions in this situation. But then there was a tremendous joy because the reunification was a festival of freedom. 16-17 million East Germans were set free, as well as a whole bunch of countries that have been under Soviet rule.

The fall of the Wall was the main symbol of the changes in 1989. How do you see now, 25 years later the whole transition process?

It is important to mention that Hungary was the first country where the Iron Curtain was opened, thanks to the Hungarians, their civil society and their government. About the last 25 years: we have to distinguish between Russia and the rest of Eastern Europe. And I am not talking about Central Europe, which is now part of the two decisive Euro-Atlantic organizations, the NATO and the European Union. Under Eastern Europe I mean Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, the Caucasian countries. In these countries, societies increasingly want to move West. For them it is not a question of liking Coca Cola or the American culture. It is a question of being able to choose their political system, living under a minimum of rule of law and being able to choose their alliances. That is what really counts for them. That is what we saw at Euro-Maidan so dramatically at the end of last year. We have this development and at the same time there is a strongly resurgent Russian nationalism, increasingly taking on ideological overtones like Eurasianism. I think we begin to understand that Russia is our antagonist. Russia is fundamentally antagonistic to the West and wants to have a sphere of influence in its own neighborhood. It is something we cannot expect. I always had a problem with the term geopolitics meaning that the geographical location of a country is the decisive factor in determining its system and its alliances. But this is unacceptable because it is fundamentally undemocratic. People have to have the ultimate say. And that leads us back to 1989. The Berlin Wall actually did not fall on its own weight. And it was not brought down by Mikhail Gorbachev or other enlightened communist leaders. It was brought down by the people. And that has a tremendous relevance for the 21th century and for the conflict that we are now in. Russia openly disputes the right of the people to determine their destiny. And we hopefully just as staunchly defend the right of nations and of citizens to live in a country they want to live in.

You gave a lecture in Budapest about the future of the liberal democracy. What is your definition of a liberal democracy?

Liberal democracy is free elections, separation of powers, and the rule of law. I am simplifying but basically this is it. It means that we are not only talking about parties competing with each other. We are also talking about the classical checks and balances of state and social institutions. That includes free media, independent judiciary and central bank, a parliament and a government checking closely each other, and of course a judiciary that defends the constitution.

Don't you think that there could be other types of democracy, for example a conservative democracy?

The only term which has taken on some kind of international significance is "illiberal democracy", which was brought into the public debate by Fareed Zakaria, an American publisher in the 90s. He wrote that an illiberal democracy appears like a democracy and even there are different parties, but this is offset by a lack of checks and balances and separation of powers. For me the term "liberal" has three different meanings: a form of government, an ideology, and a set of policies. Liberal democracy is influenced by the liberal ideology, it is true. But I would compare it to the idea of environmental sustainability. This was originally the idea of the green parties in Europe –that is why these parties were born. Green parties were the ones which lifted this idea to the level of a political program. And all the other parties said: what's this? Thirty, forty years later we have a situation where all the political parties are committed to environmental sustainability. It had become part of political discourse in almost every European country. And this is what happened with the ideas of liberalism in the 19th, 20th century. In a certain sense most of us are liberals. We think that there is nothing more effective in implementing the aspirations of a society than the liberal democracy. We do not have to be a member of a liberal party in order to subscribe to this.

But the idea of the liberal democracy is coming from the Anglo-Saxon countries; the model is based on their traditions and historic developments. What if this idea is not acceptable to a nation with a different culture, see the story of the Arab Spring?

Very interesting question. I think this is a topic we have been debating and we will be debating for a long time to come. Personally I refuse to be a cultural determinist. I do not believe that there is a society on Earth in which people do not want to have a choice when they are given the choice. And I think only this kind of democracy with the separation of powers and the checks and balances is sustainable in the long run. That does not mean that South Korea will have the same Anglo-Saxon-kind Supreme Court as they have in the United States. Each nation has its own ways, even within the Anglo-Saxon world, and yet, the basic idea is the same. The thing is that the emerging middle class in many of the developing countries is increasingly demanding the institutions of the liberal democracy, even if they don't talk about the liberal democracy itself. They sometimes call it anti-corruption policies or the rule of law, they call it "safe future for my children and myself". The possibility of having a choice that is what people increasingly demand. In the debate around the decline of the liberal democracy, this element is missing. We do not even see how successful we are. Sometimes we are reminded by spectacular events like Euro-Maidan in Kiev or Gezi Park in Istanbul or the protests in Hong Kong. That lasts for a few weeks in our media-oriented culture and then it is gone again. We should be much more insistent on reminding ourselves: 1989 and the liberal democracy is not a question of history, but it is actually very topical today, with the emerging middle class in the world. China will see that, too.

What about the conservative values in a liberal democracy? Can they be defended in this system?

Let me give you an example: the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is a very big tent, which covers one-half of the political spectrum from the Centre-Right to the Center. The CDU has found a definition of family, in which the parents take responsibility for the children and parents take responsibility for the children. Now this is part of the platform of the CDU. This is something that in the 1950s in the CDU, as a very Catholic party, would have been considered as a sacrilege, something that is not acceptable. Yet, it has changed. But it is still a stronger commitment to the idea of family that you would find at other parties, the Greens for example. The definition of what conservative, Centre-right, or Christian-democratic is, changes over time. And this reflects actual changes in society. There are other European countries where the respective Christian-Democratic party would not define family this way, and it would say that a family is a father, a mother and children. This is something that every country should resolve for itself. This is nothing where strong countries should tell anyone else how to behave, this is nothing where European Union has to come in and should change party platforms or even the way things are discussed in the public sphere. What we do have is a certain set of values enshrined in the preamble in the Lisbon Treaty. We have a European Court of Justice and that is where fundamental rights are concerned: national legislation must be in tune with the set of rights. If the European Union has supra-national power structures, an independent, controlling judiciary is also needed. Going back to the original question: I know that there are different definitions of conservative values and politics by different political parties in the European countries. And it is alright. But I think the European Centre-right has a certain core-set of values that is identical in the various parties.

There are many critics of the liberal democracy who share the idea of the decline of the West and the rising of the East. These critics come from different circles, from the nationalists to the radical left and the radical right.

This is a phenomenon where there is an agreement between the radical left and the radical right, and this is something new. They could always agree that capitalism is a bad thing but now there is a much more concrete definition of their enemy: it is the West, as such. And the new thing is that both the radical left and the radical right are  supported and ideologically nurtured by an external power and that is Russia, a newly aggressive Russia with Mr Putin, which by the way has itself taken ideas from the European radical right and radical left and imported them. If you look at the intellectual biography of Alexander Dugin, that is what you find. He imported elements of his Eurasian ideology from Western European countries. What I would say: do not consider the West finished too early because that mistake has been made many times in history, for example in the 1930s. In the 30s liberal democracy and democratic capitalism looked like the big loser.

After the economic crisis of 1929.

Exactly. Liberal democracy has this amazing quality of bouncing back when you least expect it. And now we are at such a point. The Martens Center is working on a book called The Renaissance of the West. We ask: what has to happen in order to strengthen ourselves vis a vis the many challenges that come from the outside, especially the challenge of the newly aggressive Russia.

What are the main points of The Renaissance of the West?

The main point is that there is a war of ideas. We are in a battle. We have to amend the ramparts. We have to amend the barricades. We have to get ourselves into shape. It has a mental component, but it also has an economic component.

Were we out of shape in the last 10 or 20 years?

We were complacent. We were too sure of ourselves. We were optimistic about the lack of alternatives, and it has to do with Mr Fukuyama's idea about the end of history and all that. We underestimated the ability of the enemies of the West to be innovative. They find new instruments and weapons against the West, what we see in Russia now, or there is the brutality of the ISIS which rules parts of the Middle East. But as much as we were over-optimistic and complacent in the 90s and early 2000s, now there is a danger that we are falling into the other extreme, being overly pessimistic. And it weakens us. There is no problem with self-doubt. Self-doubt is part of the West, and actually one of its hidden strengths. To put yourself in question, to ask: are we still on the right track? But what has to follow this, is the determination to make the West stronger, vis a vis its critics. And that means a newly assertive way of putting forward liberal democracy. And there are a lot of individual policies from energy to single market, defense, intelligence, and the efforts in the civil societies to counter the Russian propaganda, because this propaganda has found amazing new ways for influencing the public debates and thereby the decision-makers. We have to find answers to all of this. And the answers are out there, we just have to put them together in a Gesamtkonzept as we Germans say, a comprehensive plan. That contains our paper, The Renaissance of the West.

What are exactly the strengths and weaknesses of the West?

First of all, when there is a possibility of choice, people opt for a choice. I think we've got history on our side. The weakness of the West is that we expect it in too short terms. We live in this four or five year circles of elections and we expect presentable results for the next election campaign. And when it is taken to the extreme this is very dangerous because it makes us blind for the long term developments; it makes us weaker towards external enemies, like Mr Putin's Russia.

Not to mention China.

Yes, China, for example. All these powers have no elections in the classical sense. They are therefore much more likely to think in longer terms and to be able to sustain aggression or antagonism much longer. We have to become better in this. We have to convince people and laying out options for our populations. We have to make the case for our own people. This is not only about Ukraine or Eastern Europe, this is about Europe. The Russian aggression in Ukraine is an aggression against a Europe that we want. It is also against the European Union, Mr Putin is attacking our core values. He is trying to play countries off against each other. He is trying to weaken the key Euro-Atlantic institutions, the NATO and the EU, by showing that there is nothing, that if he attacks country A, then country B is not going to help them. So if we recognize that this is about us, then the Portuguese, the Belgians, the Italians should be able to listen to the argument of acting together against a newly aggressive Russia. It takes longer to convince, and there are some difficult and painful decisions involved in this. And it is always hard to sell in liberal democracies, but we have to try it.

In the current institutional crisis of the EU, what would be the best solution for the future?

It would be easy for me to say: more Europe. That is what Chancellor Merkel said for a long time. And she does not say it too often recently. Anyway, for me, more Europe does not mean anything, unless we don't define, what we are talking about. I think we will see more coordination and cooperation within the Eurozone. There would be a support from a stronger Commission to streamline some economic policies, without harmonizing tax systems, for example. There will be stronger cooperation on budgetary questions, on macroeconomic policies, and there has to be a huge effort to complete the single market. It must be a bad joke that more than 50 years after the foundation of European integration we still have barriers to the free movement of people, goods, services and money among the member states. We need to strengthen the trans-atlantic trade with the TTIP. All these measures belong to the near future and our efforts to shake up economically and to produce more growth and more jobs. That is the economic set. On the political side, of course we have to get stronger on defense. The EU must coordinate it with NATO, and it is happening, it is already better than it was few years ago. And it will get better in the future, thanks to Mr Putin. We have to achieve energy independence, energy union. These are things that I do see happening in the next couple of years but I do not see necessarily a big new treaty, something like Lisbon 2. I know that many people are demanding it, also in our political family, but I do not see it in the next five years.

What does Martens Center stand for?

We are strongly involved in this Eastern angle, the challenge coming from the East, by the Eastern neighboring countries, where civil societies are slowly building up, where people have demonstrated their will to join the West, and where we have to find ways to stabilize these countries, which are destabilized by Russia. It is always easier to tear things down than build things up, and we are the ones who have to build. That is the major topic for us. But we are also working on the economy (jobs, growth and so on), which was our number one topic some years ago. I think the elections have shown that jobs and growth are not everything. We have new security challenges but there is also the identity politics. The whole question of immigration, mobility within the European Union, ethnic minorities in Europe, the question of what is the right balance between fears of citizens and the freedom of movement, which is a basic right... And besides, we are still looking at the development of political parties on the national and on European levels, drawing political conclusions from the last European elections and we are also looking at the new societal challenges like the social media, internet and other effects of technological developments on politics.




Roland Freudenstein was born in Bonn, Germany. After a two-year voluntary military service, he studied political science, economics, Japan studies and international relations in Bonn and Los Angeles. Having worked as a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, he became a member of the foreign and security planning staff of the European Commission in Brussels in the 1990s. Subsequently, he became the director of the Warsaw office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and later held a leading function in the Foundation’s central office in Berlin. After coming back to Brussels in 2004, he represented the German city state of Hamburg to the EU. He is now, since 2008, Head of Research and Deputy Director of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies. He has contributed to debates and published extensively on European integration, international security, German-Polish relations, global democracy support, and recently about the changes in the Middle East.

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