Following the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the election of US President Donald Trump, the rise of right-wing populism in Europe has attracted a great deal of attention.
Although Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom failed to achieve a sufficient majority in the Dutch general election to form a government, it still gained 20 seats in parliament.
Next month it will be the turn of the French to go to the polls and in September, Germany.
The rising tide of popularism in Europe continues to erode traditional democratic values, leaving many deeply concerned for the future of the continent.
Democratic government is founded upon the twin principles of national sovereignty and equality of participation in politics. Democracy works by following the will of the majority, which manifests as rule by the people.
Whether a majority is better placed than a minority to arrive at a wise decision is a question that has repeatedly been posed since the time of ancient Greece.
Democracy provides a way to effect peaceful political change by “counting heads instead of breaking them.” Most important of all, democracy is the realization of the human pursuit of universal human rights based upon humanistic values. For this reason, democratic government is truly superior to all other political systems.
Democracy is not just a question of quantity — the majority view — but is also a question of quality — pursuing the values of human rights.
If a democracy departs from these values, all that will be left is majority rule devoid of virtue or integrity, and it will inevitably lead to a race to the bottom by politicians playing to the populist vote.
At the end of 2010, many in the Arab world rose up during the Arab Spring, which raised hopes of democracy spreading across the region. Few could have predicted that shortly after the tender buds of democracy had begun to develop, the region would be plunged into a series of catastrophic wars, leading to a large-scale refugee crisis in Europe, spiked with the threat of terrorism.
These events have stirred up a strong undercurrent of racism and unleashed a form of populism that is eroding the democratic ideals of Europe.
The refugee crisis is a humanitarian problem. Racial equality and multiculturalism are core to the values of human rights and fundamental to democracy.
Imposing illiberal restrictions on refugees and migrants is unlikely to resolve the problem of terrorism in Europe, but it is a surefire way to overturn precious, hard-won democratic ideals and universal human rights.
From the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the 1976 UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, European democracies have lead the way, exhibiting a universal compassion and humanitarianism in accordance with the highest traditions of democracy and human rights.
However, parochial nationalism has once again reared its head as a new form of populism. Perhaps it will turn out to be nothing more than a ripple on the water’s surface — a temporary phenomenon — but the warning signs should be heeded nonetheless.
In recent times Europe has led the world. The secret of the continent’s success is in part attributable to democratic government, technological achievement and economic liberalism, but most important of all, it is a product of Europe’s promotion of universal human rights and its strong humanitarian traditions.
Whether Europe or the US, if democratic societies begin to depart from the universal values of human rights, they will cease to become the great societies that they once were.
Ho Hsin-chuan is a professor in National Chengchi University’s philosophy department.
Translated by Edward Jones
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