Sme: When liberals attack

June 8, 2018

Don’t look now, but a counterrevolution against illiberal populism is underway in parts of Europe.

While much of the European media is focused on the new populist government in Italy, the new Spanish prime minister, Socialist Pedro Sanchez, just formed a government where seven of the 11 cabinet members are women. Whereby the Italians are threatening to leave the eurozone, Mr Sanchez has assembled a leadership team with vast experience in Brussels. A person close to the new Spanish government told The Financial Times this week that Sanchez would be ““more in line with France than Germany” when it comes to EU affairs — an allusion to French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for deeper integration of the eurozone.

Benjamin Tallis, a senior researcher at the Institute for International Relations in Prague, calls the leaders of this emerging trend — with Macron as the embodiment — “offensive liberals”. What differentiates offensive liberalism from other recent incarnations of liberalism, Tallis argues, is that it deals in grand narratives. In Macron’s case, this is a sort of “European Dream” where the EU — strong, united and democratic — is a force for prosperity and good. It contrasts with the stagnant, defensive liberalism of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign (“American is already great”) or the Brexit “Remain” campaign — as in lets keep things the same.

Unlike liberals of the past, offensive liberals articulate what they stand for and are not afraid of a direct clash with illiberal forces. In fact, such clashes may be inevitable. “This new breed of offensive liberalism amounts to a deliberate re-politicisation of European politics, one that is aimed at saving the EU as a legitimate liberal institution – but which also has the potential to destroy it,” Tallis wrote recently.

For proof of this willingness to confront illiberalism head on, take what Mr Macron tweeted about Donald Trump just before the start of this weekend’s G7 Summit: “The American President may not mind being isolated, but neither do we mind signing a 6 country agreement if need be. Because these 6 countries represent values, they represent an economic market which has the weight of history behind it and which is now a true international force.”

Back in Spain, offensive liberalism is already the new mainstream. Though Mr Sanchez has a weak mandate, taking over as prime minister not through an election but after conservative Mariano Rajoy was ousted from power last week, the right-wing populists en vogue in Central Europe are nowhere in sight. In an election held today, the likely winner would be the secular, liberal, centrist Ciudadanos party — led by Albert Rivera, another offensive liberal. Mr Sanchez would finish second.

In the context of the EU, Spain and France are not small, obscure countries. Combined they have 30 million more people than Germany. In a coming clash between offensive liberal leaders and those of the the type in Poland, Hungary and Italy, which side are you on?