A Few Questions

2023 Dahrendorf Colloquium - Europe and Freedom

Since 'Europe and Freedom' is a very broad theme, we here suggest a few possible questions for each session to consider. Some questions are repeated where they are relevant to more than one session, and we make no apology for mixing analytical and prescriptive. No attempt has been made to be comprehensive. These suggested questions are solely to stimulate thought. Panellists and participants will feel free to interpret the subject in whichever way they think best.

1. Europe and Freedom: The View from Outside

Europe, and specifically the European Union, likes to present itself around the world as an embodiment of the values itemised in Article 2 of the Treaty of European Union, including freedom, alongside human dignity, democracy, the rule of law etc. Does it look that way to others? Do Europeans, and specifically the EU, preach too much and listen too little?

Is there a broader perception of hypocrisy: for example, Europe pursuing its interests in business (China) or a deal to reduce migrant flows (Turkey) while continuing to preach these 'European values'?

How heavily does the memory of Europe's colonial past, and of more recent Western hegemony, weigh upon these perceptions?

Our recent ECFR/Europe in a Changing World opinion poll suggested that a Western rhetoric concentrating on democracy may be ineffective, since 77% of Chinese respondents and 54% of Indian respondents said their own country 'comes closest to having a real democracy'. Will a European narrative around freedom suffer from the same problem?

Is the rhetoric of freedom seen as somehow old-fashioned, 'Cold War' talk, perhaps particularly identified with the United States, the UK and other 'Anglosphere' powers rather than continental Europe?

To the extent that Europe is seen as a place of freedom, is this identified mainly with the domestic circumstances of a few specific European countries (as some of the conversations in our 'Europe in a Changing World' webinars have suggested) or with the continent as a whole and/or the EU as such?

How important is it that Europeans' freedom of movement across the continent, so highly valued by young Europeans (see our report Young Europeans Speak to EU) is seen (quite accurately) to be bought at the expense of the freedom of movement of those from outside?

How much traction has the (old and new) ideological claim that while European democracies may do more for political and civil liberties, other places and systems do more for economic and social ones?

2. Freedom in Europe: The Last 50 Years

Andreas Wirsching writes in his history of contemporary Europe, Der Preis der Freiheit,  that 'the keyword for the European history of our time is freedom. Indeed, there are a few big epochs in modern history in which such a major increase in freedom was to be seen as in the two decades after 1989.' In what senses does this generalisation hold up, and in which might it be questioned?

How far can the spread freedom in Europe from 1973 to 2008, in southern, central and eastern Europe, be connected with the process of aspiring to become a member of the European Community/Union?

What explains the 'downward turn' (TGA) of liberal Europe after 2008?

How far was the embrace of the goal of individual liberty discredited by its association with 'liberalism', understood as an elite, cosmopolitan project? (Also construed as 'Europe' v the nation.) And by its association with a particular model of globalised, financialised capitalism? How adequate is the label 'neoliberalism' as historical explanation?

Were political and civil liberties not sufficiently matched by social and economic ones? How important were cultural as compared with economic factors?

How different is the aetiology of antiliberal populism in different parts of Europe?

Why has the EU been so ineffective in preventing the erosion of liberal democracy in Hungary, and to a lesser extent in Poland?

3. The State of Freedom in…

Country and region panels 3.1 to 3.6.

Is it possible to give an assessment of the overall state of freedom in these countries? And of an upward or downward trajectory? If so, what are in each case the most relevant contemporary historical milestones?

What are the areas of particular concern in each case? Free speech? Minority rights? Media? The (in)dependence of the judiciary? Public appointments (eg in the UK)? Corruption? 'Cancel culture'? Culture wars? To what extent can issues around freedom be disentangled from those around the functioning of democracy?

How far do high levels of economic inequality, and (for some places or groups) poverty in absolute terms, translate directly into deficits of individual liberty? Is a tendency to plutocracy, perhaps even 'hereditary plutocracy', undermining liberal democracy?

How much lasting damage has been/is being done by populism, in each of its specific national and/or regional forms?

What impact has the hyper-polarisation and visible degradation of the norms of liberal democracy in the United States had on your European country or region?

What is the role of external anti-liberal actors such as Russia and China?

What has been the impact of the war in Ukraine? Refocussing attention on the issue of freedom, but also soft-pedalling EU conditionality on Hungary and Poland, because of the need for European unity over Ukraine?

The role of EU membership more broadly?

with special reference to 3.1. Britain

In what senses, if any, can Britain be said to be a more free country as a result of Brexit? Or less so?

with special reference to 3.3. East Central Europe

Why has the EU been so ineffective in preventing the erosion of liberal democracy in Hungary and Poland?

What are the conditions for recovery from a condition of competitive authoritarianism (Hungary) or 'illiberal democracy' (i.e. liberal democracy in decay, as in Poland)?

What lessons can be learned from the turn away from nationalist populism in the Czech Republic? How significant is the threat of renewed populism in Slovakia?

What role is played by anti-liberal external actors (eg Russia, China) in restricting or eroding freedoms?

with special reference to 3.5. South East Europe

To what extent has the effective paralysis of EU enlargement over the last 15 years (with the single exception of Croatia in 2009) negatively impacted freedoms in the countries concerned? Is there a sense that a new dynamism in EU enlargement for the Western Balkans would have a positive impact?

What role is played by anti-liberal external actors (eg Russia, China) in restricting or eroding freedoms?

Impact of the war in Ukraine?

with special reference to 3. 6. Ukraine

What can we learn (or re-learn) from Ukraine about freedom? The specific concept of volia.

What military, diplomatic and political outcome of the war is needed so that Ukraine can have a secure future as a free country? What will be the key determinants of that future?

Ukraine was assessed by Freedom House as only 'partly free' in 2021. The country is fighting for freedom (collective and individual), but are there threats to individual? freedom emerging under the conditions of war? Excessive central dominance of the presidential administration? One monopoly news 'telethon'? An overwhelming need for national unity that puts into question the position of some national minorities?

How can Europe – both as a community of individual countries and as the EU – contribute to enhancing freedoms in Ukraine after the war? How can the processes of reconstruction, reform and EU enlargement be linked to the advantage of all three?

3.7. The European Union

Is it possible to generalise empirically about the state of individual liberty across the EU, as Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights suggest one should be able to? Or is the reality that it depends on your member state? Or should one rather distinguish between those freedoms – for example, freedom of movement, the 'four freedoms' of the single market – where the EU has a major determinant impact, and those – for example, academic freedom, effective media freedom – where it has much less impact? On which areas of freedom should EU policy focus more? On which less?

Why has the EU been so ineffective in preventing the erosion of liberal democracy in Hungary and Poland? How might that be changed?

What has been the impact of the war in Ukraine? Refocussing attention on the issue of freedom? But also soft-pedalling EU conditionality on Hungary and Poland, because of the need for European unity over Ukraine?

In what senses, if any, can Britain be said to be a more free country as a result of Brexit? Or less so?

3.8. European Media

Can one generalise at all about European media or a 'European public sphere'? Or are we still essentially dealing with national media systems?

Has the digital age brought an increase in media freedom in Europe, in the sense that people can access a multiplicity of media effortlessly across frontiers? Or a diminution, in the sense that a few, mainly US-owned platforms have such a dominant position? Or both?

What is the biggest threat to media freedom in Europe/specific countries now? Censorship? Ownership? The pressures of competition in an age of spectrum profusion? 'Political correctness' and 'cancel culture'? 'Fake news' or 'filter bubbles'? Lack of media and digital literacy?

What role do social media platforms play in the state of media freedom in Europe, particularly in relation to disinformation and fake news? How can this challenge be addressed while protecting freedom of expression?

Will the EU's proposed Media Freedom Act make any difference? Should it?

3.9. European Universities

Can we detect any general trend towards more or less academic freedom across European universities? Is there a significant difference between the position of private universities in the Anglo-American mould and the public universities more prevalent in continental Europe? Or is meaningful generalisation only possible at the national level?

What are the greatest threats to different aspects or areas of academic freedom? (Lernfreiheit and Lehrfreiheit. Research, curricular teaching, extra-curricular activities, student societies, academics' extra-mural speech.) Pressures from government? Pressures from funders (or the lack of funders), whether commercial or public? Pressures from students, activists or 'cancel culture'? Old and new taboos?

Lessons to be learned from the story of the Central European University and its involuntary move from Budapest to Vienna?

Are universities sufficiently performing a public function of truth-seeking (evidence-based, fact-promoting) institutions in what are sometimes hyperpolarised and lie-infected information environments? In providing the knowledge infrastructure to sustain wider freedoms and the epistemic foundations of liberal democracy?

How do issues of diversity, equality, and inclusion intersect with academic freedom in European universities? What tensions may arise between these values? How can academic communities promote a culture of intellectual humility, critical thinking, and respectful engagement while navigating debates around controversial or sensitive topics? How can universities foster a supportive and inclusive environment that upholds academic freedom while valuing diversity of perspectives?

4. Freedom in Europe: Dimensions, Dilemmas and Prospects

'My world is as far from freedom as the one my parents tried to escape. Both fall short of that ideal. But their failures took distinctive forms…' Lea Ypi, Free. In what senses of the word freedom might that be said to be true? What have been the specific forms of the more recent failures? Is the problem capitalism itself, or just the particular prevalent forms of (eg globalised, financialised) capitalism? Are more radical solutions needed on the question of ownership?

What are the greatest threats to freedom in Europe today, external and internal? How significant is Russian and Chinese influence, overt and covert, including energy supplies, financial ties and disinformation? What impact has the hyper-polarisation and visible degradation of the norms of liberal democracy in the United States had, and what would be the potential impact of a Trump victory in 2024? What about the effects of global warming, global population growth, and mass migratory pressures? Can global warming be kept under 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels without more radical constraints on individual liberty?

Do we see a tendency towards the re-merging of wealth and power, in the form of plutocracy, or even hereditary plutocracy? And pluto-populism, partly in response to that? How successful can populists be in counterposing democracy to liberalism and using legitimacy from the ballot box to curb civil liberties and anti-majoritarian institutions?

Does a political gathering of forces in the liberal centre, as per Emmanuel Macron, almost invariably end up strengthening the extremes of left and right?

Can an ageing European population's expectations of economic growth and welfare provision be satisfied given all these constraints?

Is it possible for an enlarged EU of 30+ member states to be a more effective actor domestically and externally, and at the same time be a more effective guardian of European citizens' rights and liberties? Or are there significant tensions between those goals?

Could semi-detached countries like Switzerland, Britain and Norway end up telling a story about freedom (collective and individual) that proves attractive to a growing number of European citizens? (In the 2022 Eurobarometer, an EU average of 27% of respondents said their country would be better off outside the EU.)

How far can we now talk of identity politics on a global scale? A competition of narratives about your own civilisation as much as of ideologies, policies or economic performances?

5. The Future of Freedom

This last session is intended as an opportunity for the younger generation, represented here by more than thirty alumni and current students of the Dahrendorf Programme and Network, to take the lead. After a short video lecture by Francis Fukuyama, a discussion among them will be led by Rana Mitter. In the last part of the session, there will be a chance for final comments by other participants. The questions below are primarily intended for the alumni and student group.

How do you respond to what Francis Fukuyama had to say then (the 'End of History' thesis of 1989/92) and what he argues now in his video lecture?

How important a value is freedom for you individually? Does the word have a slightly old-fashioned, 'Cold War' ring for you? Or is it more important than ever?

What does it mean to you? What for you are the most vital aspects of freedom? What do you see as the most important determinants of the future of freedom, in your own country and more broadly?

Do we need socialism rather than liberalism to secure equal liberty for all? If so, what other defining differences between democratic socialism and egalitarian  liberalism?

Are radical constraints on individual liberty needed to prevent planetary overheating? What can there be a 'green liberalism'?

How credible an ideological competitor is authoritarian capitalism for your generation and your country? (In our 2020 poll, 40% of all Europeans and 53% of Europeans aged 16-29 said that 'authoritarian states are better equipped than democracies to tackle the climate crisis'.)

What is to be done?