President Donald Trump’s confrontational, petulant behavior, displayed at meetings in Brussels and Sicily last week, conveyed his resentment toward European and other democratic allies for allegedly taking advantage of the United States in their defense spending and trade balances. Refusal to reaffirm NATO’s Article 5, calling Germany “very bad” for its trade surplus with the US, and his refusal to re-commit the US to the Paris Climate Change Accord, solidified close American allies’ distrust.
Last week, Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign and security policy chief, hit the road for her first trip to the entirety of the so-called “Western Balkans Six,” the region’s countries not yet part of the Union, to assure them that their membership perspective was still alive. This was a noble undertaking, given the crucial elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany scheduled to take place this year that could rock the European Union and send it spiraling into a deep internal crisis.
The troubling apparent backsliding of liberal norms and practices in 2016 (e.g., Brexit, the tone of the U.S. election campaign and first weeks of the Trump administration, and growing right-wing movements in support of “illiberal democracy”) has highlighted that civic education (instruction on democratic principals and the form and function of government) is lacking in both developing and the more “consolidated” democratic societies alike. It also focused attention on the challenges of liberal democratic transition, demonstrated the non-linear nature of the process and revealed the need for not only robust liberal institutions, but widespread education on liberal norms.
In the future, will 2016 be seen as the year in which the democratic world lost faith in its own institutions and processes? From the vantage point of January 2017, a strong case can be made that this is precisely what this past year demonstrated in the heartland of postwar democracy: Western Europe and the United States. Great Britain, the venerable moderator of European politics, took a radical turn with its vote to leave the EU on June 23.
Far from portending a clean break from Macedonia’s years-long political crisis, the election results have clarified, rather than ameliorated, the political division in the country. Furthermore, the results demonstrate that the EU’s attempts to mediate a path out of the crisis for two years have failed – and may now deliver a seal of approval to a further consolidation of authoritarian power under Gruevski with a narrow parliamentary majority. The danger is that the EU will from now on downplay government abuses in order to “move forward.