Some where, far, far away in a town no where near western Europe a person coined the phrase “illiberal democracy”. It sounds clever. It sounds learned. It sounds credible. A legitimate, benign alternative to the liberal democracies built up in post-war western Europe. It is not. Illiberal democracy is neither learned, nor legitimate and it can never ever be a credible alternative to a substantive, liberal democracy founded on pluralism, accountability, human rights and the rule of law.
The “ill” in illiberal tells us all we need to know about this foreign import. The very word is unwell.
To the outside world an illiberal democracy looks perfectly presentable. Behind the veneer the flesh is corrupted. Illiberal democracy is a non-native phytosanitary parasite that has the potential to infect the host body with notions of grandeur and statehood and it should be stopped in the same way the EU fights any other phytosanitary parasite poised to contaminate the European Union.
Illiberal democracy is the respectable front of inward decay. It can be compared to the outwardly successful businessman dressed in bespoke Savile Row suits who returns home to his neatly manicured, gated domain to beat his wife black and blue. Neighbours suspect something is amiss but the screams are silenced by well insulated walls, guard dogs patrolling the gated property and specially positioned security cameras that swivel on their axes to detect any movement. In public the wife is a show-case specimen. Groomed, presentable and with a face caked in expensive foundation to disguise the bruising beneath the eyes. Woe betide her if she forgets her script or the role she is expected to play. The moment the gates slam shut to the manicured home the fist and the belt will reappear and this time a few ribs will be cracked to keep her submissive, subdued, terrified.
So too illiberal democracy. It is the parlance of an international statesman with a taste for aggression and violence. It is the suit they dress-up in for press conferences with the foreign media or when they seek to press the flesh at international conferences. In reality they feel more comfortable dressed in knuckle-dusters and steel-tipped boots which enables them to govern through brute force as opposed to reasoned debate.
Proponents of illiberal democracy believe they can sow the seed of illiberal democracy in the heart of Europe. They are wrong. Post-war Europe was founded on the values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These substantive, not mere formal show-case, values are common to the member states in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.
These core EU values are the only known cure to the “ill” that some falsely attach to “liberal”.
These values are the very foundation upon which the EU edifice is built. They are the pillars of granite that support the prosperity so many envy but sadly so few chose to emulate. Liberal democracies that respect pluralism, human rights and the rule of law are substantive and as such give modern European populations the confidence to be creative, dynamic, innovative and hard-working without fear of reprisal or beatings. It is what the EU’s success is built upon. There can be no compromise. There will be no compromise. When it comes to liberal democracy there can be no half-way house or fudging of these sacred principles: it is all or nothing. The EU’s core values set out for all to read in Article 2 are inviolable.
Contrary to what some may assume liberal democracies are made of steel when it comes to defending these values from which our freedoms derive. To those who believe they can introduce illiberal democracy into the EU they should know that liberal democracies should not be confused with touchy-feely weak chinned sops. They are not soft underbellies that can be ripped open and bled. Those who offer illiberal democracy as a credible alternative to a liberal democracy should not be fooled into assuming that just because the EU has a reputation for compromise and negotiations when it comes to trade deals, budgets, standards and tariffs that it will ever negotiate or compromise on human dignity, tolerance or a substantive rule of law. Any thugs already within the fold who believe they can introduce illiberal practices within their own countries must know that the EU will fight them with vigour every step of the way. Those within the fold toying with the idea should have their rights suspended and the transfer of regional funds should be halted. If that fails they should be asked to leave. The EU takes a robust stance to any phytosanitary disease that could spread mayhem within its border. It should do the same with anyone showing early symptoms of illiberal decay.