Wednesday, 27 July 2016


First published in Online Opinion. Also available on Linkedin.
Attacks similar to those in Nice and Munich could happen in any other Western city in the near future. Discussion about the political culture that grounds liberal democracies should not be delayed.
Nice is a beautiful spot in Europe. Located between Cannes and Monaco at the shore of the Mediterranean over the French Riviera, this picturesque city has a long history going all the way back to its foundation by the Greeks in the IV century BC. It is also the fifth most populated city in France and hosts the third busiest airport in the country.
On 14 July—Bastille Day--Nice sadly became known worldwide as the stage of a bloody terrorist attack, joining a list that includes the European cities of Madrid (2004), London (2005), Liège (2011), Paris (January and November 2015), Brussels (2016) and Munich and other German cities just a few days ago.
A New Pattern of Fear?
Each of those attacks is in itself shocking and frightening. Shocking, due to the number of victims and the ensuing chaos caused to these cities. And frightening, as  Europeans stop wondering if another attack will take place, and instead wonder when and where. France has extended the state of emergency it had imposed after the November attacks in Paris. But neither France nor other European countries (such as Germany) can live on permanent alert.
To be sure, this phenomenon of violent attacks in the name of religion mixed with geopolitics and depression, and resulting in civilians casualties is not exclusive to Europe, or even the West. According to the Washington Post, terrorism has killed 700 people in Europe and the Americas since 2015, compared with over 3,000 each in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa and more than 20,000 in the Middle East. But this cannot be the way to solve disagreements in liberal democracies.
Furthermore, the phenomenon is not a challenge to the existence of the countries affected. Like many other Western countries, France —which has suffered several attacks in the past months— has abundant and varied resources to chase the people responsible for these criminal acts, reinforce security, fight possible sites of radicalisation internally and abroad, and improve its capacity to prevent similar attacks in the future. Yet, this is not the point.
The danger is that, in an effort to fight this growing plague, liberal democracies may end up giving up their fundamental values: that they preserve themselves as states at the price of becoming less liberal and democratic.
Back to Basics: Democracy 1.0
Simplistic fixes, such as targeting a human group in society as the cause of the situation: “Islam” or “immigrants,” or “Syrians” will only make matters worse. Just in the past two centuries Jews, Christians, dark-skinned and Chinese people, among many others, have been blamed, discriminated against and often persecuted for problems affecting the societies where they lived.
The problem with this approach is that real people do not necessarily think or behave according to the label they have been given. Peace-loving Muslims, productive immigrants, and law-abiding Syrians are not difficult to come across and that fact renders stereotypes not only divisive, but also inaccurate and useless. Recurring to them cannot solve the profound crisis devastating not only European, but Western democracies in general.
The way forward is likely to be much more complex and difficult than that, but it’s feasible and should be tried. First, Western democracies must reflect on the political culture, the civil values present at their origin, articulate them and acknowledge themselves as “cultured” in that way—possessing a certain culture. This will not be easy, since many Western democracies (especially in Europe) had come to think of themselves as “culture-free,” and therefore with a “neutral” public sphere capable of tolerating and accepting local and immigrant groups with the most varied cultural backgrounds.
The second step is to define clearly which aspects of that political culture are indispensable for Western democracies to continue existing as such. Human rights, the rule of law, balance of powers, accountability, freedom of expression and peaceful deliberation are some elements that cannot be overlooked in a liberal democracy.
Lastly, those values must be spelt out to new residents, with a clear path to citizenship that passes through their adherence to the principles that hold their polity together. Liberal democracies can tolerate much, but there are limits —precisely in core values— which cannot be compromised.

Each Western democracy has particular features: Australia is not Belgium, Sweden is not the U.S. But they all are facing a similar test as they become more culturally diverse. Radicalisation and violence is a complex problem which will not disappear any time soon. Attacks similar to those in Nice  and Munich could happen in any other Western city in the near future. Discussion about the political culture that grounds liberal democracies should not be delayed.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016


First published in Online Opinion. Also on SSRN and Linkedin. 

Brexit has been widely covered in the news. Much of the attention of the press in English has gone to the British perspective. This piece seeks to present a holistic view of this event, including the European perspective. It argues that, notwithstanding this break-up and the problems it highlights (especially the tiredness of citizens with traditional party politics), the European project can survive this crisis and forge ahead into the future.

It was a gloomy day. It was disastrous indeed. Not for everybody. Nigel Farage declared 23 June “Independence Day” for the United Kingdom of Great Britain (UK or Britain). Jean-Marie Le Pen joyfully invited France to follow suit. Geert Wilders enthusiastically called for a “Nexit”. Outside Europe, other sympathetic voices from United States (US) and Russia were heard too.
A multi-faceted drama
Many Britons believed in good faith the Leave campaign’s promises. It was somehow possible to do away with the “ugly” bits (contributions to the union’s budget and free circulation of people) of the relation with the European Union (EU) while keeping the sweet ones (access to the single market, that gobbles half of Britain’s exports).
Others voted decidedly against, but are anyway facing the consequences of what the majority has chosen. Scotland and Northern Ireland are in this position, with the former debating, again, whether their union with England is worth keeping, and the latter wondering whether peace can be preserved in a UK outside the European Union.
The situation in England is uneasy too, with major protagonists of Brexit, stepping down from their leadership positions, while the two main political parties suffer from disarray and infighting. According to some, Britain may be facing its worst political crisis since the Second World War.
Brexit has sparked a deep exercise of introspection in the rest of Europe too. The UK was the EU’s second largest economy, one of two members with nuclear weapons, and a natural link between the EU and important allies like the US. Beyond the excited cries of far-right or far-left political parties, there is  real discontent among many European citizens who perceive that the costs outweigh the benefits of belonging to the EU.
Many of the problems that troubled the European polity before Brexit continue to be there and need a solution: from economic near stagnation and the consequent unemployment to lack of social integration; from the weakness of the banking system and the euro in general to the remarkable challenge of immigration from North Africa and the Middle East and social integration of minority groups.
Making sense of the non-sense
What went wrong? Many things, at the same time. First, an irresponsible set of promises from at least some in the Leave campaign, arguing for instance that the UK would be able to apply 350 million sterling pounds that were sent to Brussels weekly to the NHS instead; that voting for leaving the EU would somehow cut immigration (with the assumption of course that all immigration is bad for the country); and that another 5 million immigrants were likely by 2030 due to the accession of new countries to the EU (including Turkey).
Second, an underwhelming campaign from the Remain side. Rather than explaining why the Leave arguments were wrong, and highlighting the benefits that the UK was receiving from its membership, they focused on the dangers of leaving the EU. The leading Remain campaigner, David Cameron was, after all, the one who promised a referendum in the first place, and was never an enthusiast of Europe. Adding to this, Jeremy Corbyn’s support for the Remain campaign was tepid at best. This contrasted with the enthusiasm of the Brexiteers, even if what their arguments couldn’t stand to serious scrutiny, because voters are tired, and that leads us to the next idea.
The third reason is a phenomenon of social psychology around party politics in many Western countries, not only the UK. Voters are tired of a political party system that is lost in endless debate, with opposing views ever more polarised against each other, and little practical benefit for the voters themselves. Therefore they look for another option voting for the “outsider”, the “non-politician” who succeeds in elections is spreading all over Europe and beyond. Parties and politicians that used to be considered before on the fringe of the political spectrum are becoming more and more part of the mainstream landscape. The UK, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Spain and Greece are but a few examples. Centre-left and centre-right parties--traditionally the Social and the Christian Democrat--dominated the scene and built the post-war Europe until very recently. That old order is in tatters now.
Fourth, there seems to be a correlation between low social mobility and discontent with the political establishment perceived as backing Remain. Vote for Brexit was higher in those regions where social mobility is lower, i.e. where people perceive that there is little hope of change as things stand. This situation explains in part the phenomenon described in the preceding paragraph, and reveals a challenge that the usual party politics hasn’t been able to address.
Begret: to pull or not to pull (the trigger)
What next for Britain? The situation in the main political parties and, indeed in the UKIP is uncertain. Between now and October new leaders of those parties will emerge. Yet the formal procedure to exit the EU doesn’t really start until the UK notifies the EU of its intention to leave. After that, a negotiation starts for a new agreement, which must be reached within two years. Needless to say, the leaving country doesn’t participate (on the EU side) in the setting of terms. That notification is the equivalent of “pulling the trigger” for the country to legally start moving away.
Once the trigger has been pulled, the UK will not have the obligations, nor will it receive the benefits of membership to this club.  Will this be the end of the UK? Perhaps not. It will certainly have to evolve, perhaps to become a federation. But the situation will be difficult, and arguably worse than it would have been inside the EU.
There are reasons to believe that the trigger might never be pulled if certain circumstances come together, for instance a blockage of the procedure by the Scottish Parliament, or a successful candidate seeking a mandate to reverse the decision (a sort of second referendum in disguise). But that is unlikely.  
Ode to Europe?
According to some who prefer to disregard the negative impact of Brexit for the UK, the British referendum should be rather considered as the beginning of the end for the EU. And, indeed, the EU might be about to crumble. Yet, whether the honour of being the main cause for that would belong to Brexit is debatable. As mentioned above, the EU faces huge challenges, or downright crises on immigration, the banking system, economic stagnation, future enlargement, or foreign policy, just to mention a few. Brexit joins a long list of Europe’s misfortunes.
However there is still hope for Europe. As acute as its difficulties are, Europe’s situation when its project of integration started in the forties was much worse. Today it is an altogether different place. It has enjoyed one of its longest periods of peace and prosperity, something other regions of the world can only dream of. And its achievements have spread benefits well beyond its borders.
The European project, which started without Britain, can survive without it. The departure of the UK from the EU is a great loss, a drama in which everybody loses. The UK has represented for Europe a fresh source of ideas; a pragmatic approach to complex problems; an ordinarily measured and reasoning voice in the discussions between East and West, North and South in Europe; an experienced player in foreign affairs; the source of a lingua franca the EU uses on its daily dealings; and a peculiar sense of humour. Furthermore, a significant number of Britons voted for Remain, or regret having voted for Leave. They believe in the European Dream that has materialised for millions across the region.
Yet the origins of the EU can be traced back to the modest initiative of six countries: France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Italy. The UK received an invitation to the club but it declined it. It wasn’t until the sixties when Britain tried to join, and the seventies when it finally was accepted. An EU without Britain would be a club with a member down, but still a 27-strong club. The qualities and ideas of Britons would not be there, but the polity would continue to inspire other nations to meet the criteria and join (think of the Western Balkan countries on course to join). The EU would still have considerable economic and political clout in the region and the world.
The problems the EU faces today, if complex and challenging, are not insurmountable. There is a history of over 60 years of the European project forging ahead, overcoming crisis after crisis, evolving, growing to the occasion with each problem, and expanding to transform the whole region completely. To remain relevant in the XXI century Europe must pool forces and present a unified front. Isolation is the past. Cooperation is the future. This doesn’t mean necessarily the creation of a “European country”--a super state--where the richness of Europe’s diversity is drowned. A European polity formed by states but not a state itself is not only thinkable, but a current--if very perfectible--reality.    
Brexit, therefore, is indeed a historic moment. But for Europe, it means a call to consider what is not working, a revisiting of processes and policies, a re-imagining of a vision for the future of the European project. The European polity must evolve to become more democratic politically, more inclusive socially, more productive economically, more effective internationally.
An agreement will have to be reached when the UK activates Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Like Iceland, Switzerland, Norway (or for that matter Belarus or Ukraine), Britain will remain a part of the European region whether it belongs to the EU or not. Brexit should by no means be a cause for dismay, but an impulse to grow. All is not lost, Europe!

Monday, 17 October 2011

Crucifixes, Public Schools, and Plurality in Europe

Also available at:

Just a few months ago, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR, or “the Court”) gave its final word over a controversy that had lasted nearly a decade. The Lautsi and others v Italy (or "Lautsi") case had attracted increasing attention first in Italy and eventually at a European scale and beyond. The issue in contention: if crucifixes should be taken down from classroom walls in Italian public schools.

Friday, 30 September 2011

The Many Faces of Intolerance

It seems common knowledge at least in some circles that somehow religion and intolerance go together. Christians, for instance, have had bitter experiences in the past. They have fought not only "heathens" or members of other religions, including Jews and Muslims. They have also divided and even persecute other Christians who thought differently. Cuius regio eius religio. Little did it matter that nothing in the content of the Christian religion itself authorised members to kill, abuse or persecute each other. Love of neighbour and of the enemy was put on hold many times. Little did it matter, this is, if political motives used religion (or lack of it, or differences about it) as a pretext. Even today Christianity, especially some branches of it, still enjoy of labels that bring memories of dogma, intolerance and imposition. Think of the term "Inquisition". 

Cosmopolitan Communitarian EU Citizenship - An Analogical Reading

Cosmopolitanism and European Identity - An Exploratory Essay

The European Union (EU) project has endured over sixty years[1]. Though initially its purpose was economic cooperation, its creators aspired to some form of future political integration too[2]. Yet the present political integration is rather loose, and if it is to mature and to evolve into a concrete entity, it must overcome one obstacle: the lack of a (common political) identity, or the impossibility to agree on what that identity may be. Two main positions - hereafter called 'nationalist' and 'cosmopolitanist', respectively - have tried to offer a possible solution.

Cosmopolitanism in Europe and Global Democracy

In his article ‘Global Democracy: In the Beginning’[1], Professor Robert Goodin presents basis for optimism regarding the future by looking to experiences of the past. He argues that democracy at a world stage might be attained some time in the future, in a similar way to which it succeeded at a national level departing from the Magna Carta (or ‘Great Charter’) of 1215 in medieval England[2], signed ‘in the meadow which is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June, in the seventeenth year of our reign’ and continuing several centuries later with the Declaration (or ‘Bill’) of Rights in 1689[3].