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Barbara Polin on 'Democracy in Danger? Transatlantic Perspective on the Recent Events in the US'

On January 6th 2021, events in Washington sent shock waves around the world. Allies

and foes of Washington looked with dismay and satisfaction at a MAGA mob

assaulting Capitol Hill, the core symbol of American democracy. Self-declared

patriots stormed the offices of top Congressional Democrats, attempted to steal key

documents and physically attacked the journalists present; they chanted “Hang Mike

Pence” while searching for all the Communists, weak Republicans and filthy

Democrats who plotted against their President.


Their violence not only did breach the security of Capitol Hill. It breached the security

of US democracy, a precious and fragile reality that President Biden defined “under an

unprecedented siege”.


To investigate what came before and what will come after the Capitol Breach, the

European Horizons Chapters of the University of Amsterdam and the New York

University joined forces for the Webinar “Democracy in Danger” live-streamed

on January 27th . The panel composition mirrored the spirit of European Horizons:

guests from both sides of the Atlantic explored the past and the future of US-EU

relations while reflecting on the resilience of liberal democracies. Participants could

enjoy an insider’s view on US politics by Dr Daniel Hamilton, Founding Director of

the Global Europe Program at the Wilson Center. They could compare his opinions

with the Euro-American experience of Dr. Christian Martin, Max Weber Visiting

Chair in German and European Studies at the New York University, Dr Alexandros

Karides, United States Desk Officer at the European Parliament’s Directorate General

for External Policy, and Dr Alice Ciulla, post-doc researcher at the University Rome

Tre and DAAD fellow.


One of the focal points of the panel was the future of liberal democracy: many

hope that Biden will raise its prestige from the ravine dug by Trump. In fact, all the

hosts warned against the hope for a perfect model of democracy. To quote Dr

Hamilton, democracy is an ongoing struggle: its bitterness resents from the social

reckoning that is shackling the US. Systemic racism and social inequality indeed

erupted during the Trump administration, but they are part of a cycle of progress and

retrogression that are common to every democracy. Indeed, the moments of crisis are

maybe more important than the ones of success. According to Dr Ciulla, periods of

crisis are necessary to understand to which type of democracy people and politicians

aspire: no political crisis has been ever demonstrated to be futile.


The reputation of the US as a reliable partner also has been a key point of the

panel. Indeed, Biden’s election was saluted as a signal of Washington being back in

the international scene. However, like in the case of democracy, the hosts warned

against being carried away by excessive relief. It is true that President Biden is likely

to maintain a more consistent foreign policy than his predecessor, but he did not gain

more than 81 million votes to change the international posture of Washington. For

instance, the US pivot to Asia is likely to remain as well as the confrontational rivalry

with China. Instead, what it could change is the relationship with the EU. For Dr

Hamilton, there is a short window during which Brussels can become an actual

counterpart to the US: Biden reportedly called the EU a partner of first resort, but the

conditions for building a sound transatlantic partnership may fade soon.


To be a credible partner of the US, the EU has to strengthen its democratic roots.

For Dr Alexandros Karides, the commitment of the European Parliament defines

the way forward. It was the institution that was most concerned about the failures

and the achievements of the EU, while also addressing its democratic deficit. Its

engagement was contagious: it was soon shared by prominent figures in the EU, like

Ursula von Der Leyen, but also by national leaders like Angela Merkel and Emmanuel

Macron. While this commitment is laudable, however, it is weakened by the fact that

the EU is an ongoing process that suffers from false starts and sudden stops. Also, its

credibility is hampered by the fact that the EU has always been eager to export

democracy abroad, but the same cannot be said about its own political structure.


Beside the relations between Washington and Brussels, the guests discussed a

common political fragility. As Dr Martin puts it, there is an unresolved clash

between democratic institutions and economic globalization. The wave of neo-

liberal policies after the end of Bretton Woods limited the capacities of the State,

shifting the control either to market forces or independent regulators. The resulting

weakness turned to be a source of political capital for populist right and left wing

parties, who preached the return of economic sovereignty to the people.


As most of the non-voters of these parties know, economic sovereignty has not been

feasible for a long time. At the same time, the lack of democratic accountability of the

entities concerned with a State’s economy poses a fundamental dilemma to liberal

democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. Who is going to identify and sanction

potential abuses? Is the State overseeing these entities or is the other way around?


Against this background, the meeting concluded with a simple yet dense observation:

the COVID crisis requires a rethinking of the whole society. A joint US-EU action

against the climate crisis is just one step of a longer process: the US and EU have to

learn how to work together to rebuild a world as strong as their partnership can be.


Written by Barbara Polin, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons.

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