One and a half years ago, when I was a guest of the Athens Democracy Forum, I spoke at this very place about the need to defend the values that constitute the foundations of liberal democracy, which is perhaps the most important invention of Europeans. I used a quote from “The Peloponnesian War” about the situation in Corcyra because I was struck by the similarity of the past and present situation, as well as by the repetitiveness of certain mechanisms in the history of our civilisation. Thucydides wrote about disorder resulting from political passions and a constant escalation of internal conflicts, where agreement was not possible because the creators of chaos arbitrarily changed the meaning of words, while values were being reversed. I also wanted to use a quote describing Athens in a time of plague, but it seemed to me too detached from contemporary reality. After all, plagues belong to a remote past, I thought. And because Pericles, the founder of democracy died in the plague, I decided that it was perhaps too gloomy to mention it.
It was only eighteen months ago, the eighteen months that shook the world, during which history rapidly accelerated. The pandemic turned everything upside down, our world and our habits. But it did not invalidate the question about the future of democracy. Quite the opposite, it only made it even more relevant, as it also made us aware of the scale of threats, not only those related to health and economy, but also of those of a strictly political nature.
Coming back to Thucydides. I have noticed how dangerous this phenomenon of reversing meanings and values is, how devastating and dangerous a lie can be, a lie, or its younger sister hypocrisy, for the public order and freedom of an individual. This is why, the first necessity in European discourse on democracy is to call things by their real name. The question about red lines in our fight to save democracy, seems of secondary importance to me, especially as politicians have always had this remarkable skill to constantly move them depending on their interests. In theory, red lines are very clearly drawn: they are the rule of law, the right of nations to self-determination, minorities’ rights and international order. But in practice, they are most often only empty declarations, because what is lacking is the determination, courage and the consistency to respect those rules, to enforce them, to stick to them. Today, the highest priority is to turn those declarations into a commitment. What does it mean in practice?
First, in a geopolitical dimension, Europe cannot give in to a temptation of creeping capitulation against the external forces which attack and undermine our foundations. A tough stance and a readiness to react to the aggressive attempts coming from such authoritarian powers like China or Russia are a conditio sine qua non for the survival of the Western political civilisation based on freedom. We do not have today, as we won’t have in the future, any relevant influence on the internal politics of Russia or China, but we must be able to defend our internal policy against any interference, increasingly more brutal, coming from their side. Our resistance against ideological, economic and technological offensive of the authoritarian powers is also a way to define ourselves. We are not able to turn Putin or President Xi into democrats, but at least let us not allow them to turn us into pseudo-democrats and change our way of thinking. We must therefore draw the lines and barriers protecting us from the anti-liberal sabotage. That is why it is so crucial for Europe to be unambiguously positive in its reaction towards the new policy of Washington and the attempt to renew our alliance for freedom, law and democracy. It would be really bad if this fashionable idea today of Europe’s strategic autonomy (quite justified after our dramatic experiences with Trump) transformed into an idea of an equal distance of Europe towards China and the US or towards Russia and the US. Such a symmetry in our international relations would be a great mistake with fatal long-term consequences. And short-term interests like Nord Stream 2, or Chinese investments cannot outweigh the strategic goal which is the protection of our foundations.
Second, with equal determination we should engage in confrontation with anti-liberal forces inside Europe, those who flirt with the Kremlin or Beijing, which is not a coincidence. Today, as the European Union, we are ready to invest enormous financial resources in the recovery and transformation of our economies after the pandemic, as well as in the protection of our environment and climate. It is high time to understand that democratic values are also our natural environment and our climate and that they also need our support, as they are in a state of emergency too. Our common European funds must not serve, under any circumstances, those who are busy building the European variants or mutations of corrupted authoritarianisms. The financing of those deconstructed democracies would be a huge mistake. A great EU debate on the Future of Europe is just starting, and one of its objectives must be the creation of mechanisms of support, financial, political, institutional, and educational, for the European model of democracy founded on freedom.
And third. To me, more important than a theoretical discussion about procedural red lines would be mobilisation, a calling to arms of all those who are ready and willing to defend this liberal minimum, this basic set of values, which is defined, clear, and quite obvious. What is not obvious and clear, is whether we are ready to defend them. In some sense, each and everyone of us must understand how serious the situation is and find in ourselves those lines. Thin lines between pragmatism and cynicism. Between flexibility and submission. Cooperation and appeasement. And between cautiousness and cowardice. If we repeat over and over that freedom and truth are so essential to us, then we must also learn, again, to fight for them.
Because as Pericles said, and let me quote him today, “freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.”