Recently two very interesting and topical events took place in Brussels which looked at the major crises faced by Europe today and what role values can and should play in shaping our response.
The Madariaga College of Europe Foundation hosted another debate in its Citizen’s Controversy series, asking a very relevant question directly: “Is the Crisis of Europe the Crisis of Social Democracy?” The European Christian Political Foundation (ECPF) held its first conference on “Values, Foundations for Europe’s Economy” in the European Parliament, with an excellent range of speakers including Czech economist Dr Tomas Sedlacek, founder of the ResPublica think tank in the UK Phillip Blond, and business leader Peter J. Briscoe, amongst others.
A convergence of crises
Both events recognised the multiple and interrelated crises which loom over Europe today. The economic recession is the talk of the times and our social problems deepen as austerity measures bite. The looming environmental crisis is sadly and mistakenly overlooked by Europe’s politicians whose agenda is firmly fixed on (the not mutually incompatible) economic recovery. In many ways, sustainability is the key to understanding where Europe went wrong and could offer a framework through which economic and social issues can be addressed.
It is safe to say that Europe has not faced such a threat to its way of life since the Second World War. Today we are dealing with a convergence of crises which is shaking at the very foundations of the European project.
A value-driven recovery for Europe
Europe’s multiple crises have occurred largely as a result of the relentless forces of neoliberalism and globalisation which have restructured our world at varying speeds over the past decades. But this zeitgeist is over. The Madariaga College and ECPF recognised that unrestrained capitalism has broken down not only our society and environment, but also imploded in on itself with the financial crash of 2008. Both events asked, in slightly different ways, if both profit and growth were the values that mattered in the neoliberal project, what kind of values are required for a comprehensive and just recovery? What should be the priorities of the politicians and people shaping Europe’s future direction?
The Madariaga College framed the debate through the lens of opposing paradigms – capitalism versus socialism. Both speakers agreed that the tough issues which Europe now faces present an opportunity for social democracy to really rediscover itself and offer a value based recovery for Europe. This would involve thinking innovatively and bravely about redistributing work, low carbon growth, external and internal migration, financial regulation and tax justice, and investment for growth.
Paul Magnette, Belgian Minister for Public Enterprises, Scientific Policy and Development Cooperation, said that electoral wins are vitally needed to bring a new age of social democracy to Europe, for which new visions, ideas and examples of a new model are required. He argued the EU has its part to play in creating a “Brussels Consensus” and developing a vision of socialism for progress, innovation and change. While national budgets are hugely constrained by the debt crisis, Europe has wider financial margins and it is possible to find billions of euros in new progressive taxes for social, technological and environmental projects.
The ECPF conference brought a fascinating Christo-centric approach to debate which was very much inspired by Christian Socialism. Through six diverse speakers the event discussed the inherent tension between morality and markets. Jesus’ uncompromising attitude to the money changers in the temple was referred to as the only time that the ultimate pacifist became aggressive. The event centred around what Christian values can and should bring to the debate on Europe’s recovery today. The collective discourse was radical with the conference arguing that capitalism and democratic socialism have failed; what is needed is a fundamental paradigm shift.
A new paradigm for a new era of responsibility
The crisis of Europe today means that we face great problems and great opportunities. If we are to move beyond the polemic capitalism versus socialism debate of the 21st century then, what should a new paradigm for a new era look like? The conference spoke of moving away from the dogma of profit maximisation and recognising the value of social and environmental benefits.
Interestingly, several speakers spoke of the extreme individualistic attitudes which have become normalised in Western societies over past decades as counteractive to building a new social compact. As an alternative, Dr Michael Schluter offered his “relational paradigm” for this “multi-century reset moment”, while Phillip Blond of UK think tank ResPublica spoke convincingly about the need to foster associative behaviour, in which individuals are free agents who choose to enter into multi-levelled associations with degrees of ownership and longevity. He argued that wealth should not be redistributed through the welfare state but instead through empowering communities to take over local expenditure through public sector mutualisation, thus facilitating both individualism and collectivism in economics and society.
These events showed that a healthy debate is emerging in Europe on how we are to organise our economies and societies for a more sustainable future. The social democrat contribution to this debate should not revolve around a wholesale return to past ideals but how to meet today’s challenges based on socialist values. The inexorable boom and bust cycle of the last century held true throughout neoliberal, socialist and so called “third way” governments.
It is time to shape a new vision for our nations and our continent as a common culture. If we want to build a future which is economically, socially, environmentally and politically sustainable then we need to recognise the inherent value of all these spheres and ensure that we organise our world accordingly. Europe would be wise to start by considering finance as its current coal and steel industry – through collective regulation of such critical industries we can minimise risk, create a new culture and build a brighter and more stable future.