Is the West a sustainable concept and operating principle? Are we entering a phase in which a consensus surrounding the notion of law, freedom, and the foundations of what is referred to as Western values is weakening? Is a combination of fragmentation in our media and our political system, and indeed throughout Western society, undermining our future?
Udo Di Fabio is worried about these questions. The former member of Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court and law professor at the Universität Bonn sees the challenges facing the Western model of democracy in Europe as a threat to the fabric of Europe. In his new book Schwankender Westen (CH Beck, 2015), he sees that a combination of crises have rattled trust in institutions and thrown doubt on confidence in the Western ideas of political, economic, and social freedoms.
The author spends the majority of his opus examining the norms of the Western model as it evolved over the past centuries. The continuing struggle to find the right balance between equality and liberty, between freedom of the individual and the demands of social contacts among individuals, between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft—all of these represent the cornerstone debates of Western democracies. What should be the parameters of the state’s responsibilities to its citizens? What are the responsibilities of the citizens to the commonweal?
After engaging in this philosophical analysis, he aims his conclusions at the current state of Europe, which he declares is not good. Citizens are no longer convinced that the European project is as promising as predicted. The impact of the financial crisis in 2009 still shakes confidence in the idea that a rising tide of economic integration can lift all boats. The threats coming out of Moscow toward Europe as illustrated in Ukraine have instilled fear on the continent. The violence emerging from terrorism on the continent and personified by ISIS adds to uncertainty. Reacting to this environment, politics has become more fragmented, leaving more room for nationalist fervor—exemplified by the refugee crisis.
Di Fabio raises the question whether Europe as an attractive and inspiring project has lost traction. Did Europe’s own success lead to its crisis of confidence today? What can be done to restore confidence in the future?
His prescription for restoring the vitality of the Western model begins with a resurgence of individual freedom as well as recognition of Europe’s diversity. That must include a redefinition of common interests without the necessity of homogenizing societies.
It is interesting to note at the end of his book, the author emphasizes that despite the forces of globalization, personified in some ways by the United States, Europe should pursue its own unique path or “way of life.” Paradoxically, he then lists all the virtues which have brought Europe this far after centuries of war and disaster—all of which are also the keys to the success of the United States.
Here again there are comparisons. The goal of the European Union is symbolized by an effective set of institutions serving the Union, he argues. But European institutions should not contradict the need to maintain the vitality of many different parts of that same Europe. In other words, as we say in the U.S., e pluribus unum. That said, neither side of the Atlantic has figured out exactly how to achieve that ideal equation. But both sides have done a pretty good job trying to get there. Di Fabio is just reminding Europeans that they need to renew their efforts.