Firstly, I wish to thank Manfred for inviting me to take part in this discussion. I am greatly impressed by the work of all of you, and by the proposals of documents you have prepared. Without a doubt, they will be very useful in the difficult process of revitalising the European Centre Right and of rebuilding the political unity of the EPP.
My life experience tells me that real politics is not about procedures, it is not about administration, and it is not about power as an end in itself. Politics and the activity of a political party cannot be a corporate rat race. As William Coffin Jr., a chaplain at Yale University once said wisely to a group of students: “Remember this: Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.” The last encyclical of Pope Francis (it is such a shame that hardly anyone still reads encyclicals!), highlights the fundamental importance of values such as brotherhood, dialogue, cooperation, tenderness in politics – in response to the resurgence in the whole world of nationalisms, xenophobia, and indifference to the fate of the weaker and the disadvantaged.
We don’t need to study the papal document in-depth to understand the threat posed to the world by a politics which is soulless, lacking empathy, cynical, and which relativises the fundamental values that we have committed ourselves to in our party platform: truth, freedom, justice, good and beauty. Forgive me if I sound too solemn but it is because I still care deeply about bringing back this more profound dimension to our politics, and I still believe that it is possible.
When I was joining the EPP almost thirty years ago, as the then- leader of a young liberal-conservative party, the first of this kind in Poland, I treated this as a natural consequence of my activity in the “Solidarność” movement. I believed that dialogue as well as a positive tension between a liberal idea of freedom, conservative devotion to the rule of law, order and tradition, and a Christian-democratic social sensitivity, were possible. What is more, the experience of “Solidarność” was evidence for me that morality, honesty, respect for the opponent, and the readiness to reach an agreement were not signs of naivety and weakness, but they could be a source of strength and they could help to secure a win. At least from time to time.
I myself have learned the hard way what authoritarian rule, lawlessness and violence mean. Those who were beaten by the political police during an interrogation, who experienced prison from within, and who were banned from working for many years because of their political convictions, will always remain very vigilant when it comes to such projects like illiberal democracy.
The synthesis of Christian democracy with liberalism and conservatism, or rather their peaceful co-existence, was possible then, because we had set very clear boundaries between what was common for us or could and should be a subject of internal dialogue, and what was fundamentally uncommon for us, unacceptable in any shape or form. In other words, we had set very clear, non-negotiable boundaries between us and nationalism, xenophobia, contempt for minorities, corruption, authoritarianism, collectivism and etatism. And it didn’t matter if those negative phenomena were supported by leftist or rightist ideas, we were still able – for some reason – to see clearly what made us different from the apostles of the many versions of illiberal democracy. To recall an old Polish joke from the times of so-called “Socialist democracy”: What is the difference between democracy and illiberal democracy? It’s like between a chair and an electric chair.
Before we try to precisely define our response to new challenges, before we propose our vision of the world after the pandemic, a world of new technologies and new geo-politics, we must regain this clarity of vision thanks to which we have built the strength of European Christian democracy. We were able to do that because for a long time no-one in our family came up with the idea of sacrificing values for power. Today we see what a great temptation it is, all around the world, to take advantage of the democratic rules of the game against democracy itself. And again, a saying of one of the Polish communist secretaries comes to mind: “We will never give away the power once taken”. Never before has Mephisto had so many clients in the world of politics. In many different systems, we have leaders who want to declare themselves as leaders-for-as-long-as-they-want, like Xi Jinping, Putin or Lukashenka. We see such leaders more and more often in Europe, and the more corrupted they are, the more determined they become. They have re-discovered, like many before them that it is possible to impose authoritarian democracy, they have re-discovered the seductive charm of manipulation and propaganda. Our consent, our hypocrisy, and sometimes even our secret dream to be as effective as they are in seizing power and holding on to it, are their greatest allies.
For my generation, the EPP was a very attractive formula, rich and varied, and yet coherent, for the exact reason that it univocally rejected two extreme visions, the radical left and radical right. Two visions which determined the fate of the whole continent in the XXth century to such a great extent. Our way of thinking was an escape from this tragic ideological trap, a truly Devil’s alternative: communism or nationalism.
Today the situation is more complicated, but it doesn’t excuse us from an obligation to be principled when it comes to fundamental issues. I greatly appreciate the intellectual effort of the authors of documents presented by Manfred Weber and François-Xavier Bellamy. Because what we need today is a fresh philosophical reflection and a new strategic perspective. But in politics it is not only thoughts, but also actions, that matter. We will gladly endorse most of the arguments and proposals put forward by our colleagues, but do we all really want to be guided by the principles we are talking about? Not theory, but political practice will be the ultimate test of our credibility. If we are for the truth in our public life, and against lies as a method of managing emotions, then we cannot sympathize with Trump or be in alliance with the Brexiteers. If we are against violence, we cannot allow ourselves to flirt with politicians, for whom violence against citizens is something natural. If we are for a united Europe, we cannot tolerate the recidivism of nationalism, also in our ranks. If we want to defend freedom of speech, then we shouldn’t close our eyes to the attempts to subordinate the media by a ruling party. If the fight against corruption is a priority for us, then we cannot accept its new form, that is a corruption organised and legalised by the state, the state which has taken over the judiciary system. We were founded to oppose contempt, soullessness, egoism and oppression, and our greatest achievement was, not at all, functions and power, but resisting this gloomy fatalism, which had brought so many disasters upon Europe.
Today Pope Francis preaches the politics of tenderness, based on love, care and service. How to translate those intentions into a political program? I know it is very difficult, but is it impossible? Some may say it is a naïve, utopian thinking, but the truth is that you can’t lead people if you don’t love them. You can’t protect people if you are not willing to serve them.