From Orbán to Macron

Values in the EU, a struggle to define what is at stake that is not fixed in the cosmopolitan vs nationalist opposition
22.11.2019 Álvaro Oleart

Photo credit: Leif Hinrichsen

European values have recently sparked a lot of discussion, mainly due to the rise of ‘illiberal regimes’ within the EU. The hegemony of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland has led many actors to question the EU’s state of democracy and rule of law, two foundational values of the European project. At the same time, several ‘pro-European’ actors sich Macron or Commission president-elect Ursula Von der Leyen emphasise repeatedly an unapologetic defence of ‘European values’. The most recent example was the slogan attached to the migration portfolio of Commissioner-designated Margaritis Schinas, ‘protecting our European way of life’.

The recent salience of (European) values in European politics has been the central subject of discussion of the conference held in the Institute for European Studies of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (IEE-ULB), “How ‘European Values’ unite and divide? Identity and morality politics in the EU”, the final conference of the ValEUR project.

As academics, many of us tend to limit the normative dimension of our research. However, when discussing politics and values, it is difficult to avoid it. Instead, especially during the final ValEUR conference, most of the speakers have embraced the inherent normative dimension in political research, particularly when dealing with values.

Values are ideational signifiers that divide in- from out-group members, distinguishing those who share them and those who do not. Some academics argue that the current wave of nationalistic discourse contrasts with a cosmopolitan backlash, illustrated by the opposition between cosmopolitan Macron and nationalist Orban. This new cleavage suggests that previously organising principles of political competition (e.g. class) have been losing ground as cultural issues emerged and met the needs of the new postmaterialist segments of the electorate. Recent research by Open Society, presented by Heather Grabbe during the policy panel of the final conference of the ValEUR project, seems to go in this direction.

However, values are regularly mobilised to influence power relations in society, which highlights the importance of actors in constructing this new cultural cleavage. Currently, the European debate surrounding values seems to be dominated by Macron and Orbán, as leaders of two opposing factions when dealing with European affairs. Yesterday in the EPP congress in Zagreb, Silvio Berlusconi, situated politically close to Orbán, proposed the creation of a common European army in order to stop “a possible mass invasion of the African people”. Instead, Macron is often perceived as the champion of a cosmopolitan Europe, even if his migration policies in France might not be as cosmopolitan and multicultural as his discourse would imply. The Greens also champion a cosmopolitan vision of Europe, but much more progressive than Macron, even though they are not as visible as they would wish in the public debate about EU issues.

The reality is that values in European politics are mobilised strategically to legitimise certain political positions. Both Macron and Orbán will continue to push a debate on ‘Europe’ and European values. In this debate, however, there are many actors missing, such as the Greens. The opposition between the ‘Neoliberal Europe’ of Macron and the ‘Christian Europe’ of Orbán, an opposition between ‘cosmopolitans’ and ‘nationalists’, leaves out of the picture progressive cosmopolitan voices that oppose both sets of actors, such as the Greens. As argued by Andy Smith, the EU’s key challenge is a legitimation deficit, not a deficit of values or indeed politics.

As academics, however, we ought to be critical. Values are and will always be part of the political struggle to define what is at stake, and they are here to stay. So far, Macron and Orbán have managed to dominate the debate through the integration-demarcation cleavage, but this could change if progressive voices manage to reframe the political debate about Europe. Examples of reframing the cultural and economic values are Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have so far successfully managed to put forward a cosmopolitan vision in terms of culture and identity, but also transformative from an economic and social perspective. Interesting values-based political debates lie ahead.