Writing the end of democracy | Aleks Farrugia

Striving for peace is also a display of courage, perhaps even more than the senseless blabbering of warmongering bureaucrats that seem so detached from and oblivious to what Europe needs today

There is a war going on that will change the face of Europe.

In this country of ours, so enclosed between the walls of its provincialism, we hardly seem to notice. Yes, inflation is biting, even if till now the government has done its best to comfortably shield us by milking the relatively opulent public kitty it has inherited from the Muscat years.

This won’t last forever, though, especially if the war lingers on. Having had to parry the blows of a pandemic and now those of war, there is good reason to be less optimistic about the sustainability of public finances in times to come, and I am sure that the minister of finance is spending more than a sleepless night trying to figure out how to keep the ship afloat.

Now that we are past the initial shock provoked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, intellectuals – but also ordinary people – across Europe have started to ask questions. It doesn’t mean that they have suddenly turned their backs to the Ukrainians or that they have become Putin supporters, but a desire to know more about what prompted this war and what the future will look like if this war becomes a protracted affair is gaining traction.

The more people are questioning the decisions taken by their leaders in the heat of the moment, largely prompted by the belligerent tone set by the United States, the more it seems that the chasm between people and their governments is widening. So much, that what appeared at first to be an occasion for European unity is now threatening to be a source of further division. European institutions have been discovered inept on multiple fronts, especially in their inability to capture the mood of EU citizens and rally Europe towards a common front. Sanctions on Russia and sending military equipment to Ukraine are the main bones of contention.

After the initial enthusiasm to impose sanctions on Russia and the withdrawal from trade agreements on gas, it became very clear that these measures would come to bite back the European nations. In a recent report by Italian journalist Milena Gabanelli in the Corriere della Sera, she estimated that around half a million Italians might lose their job if Italy stops buying Russian gas. Energy prices would double and this would have a ripple effect on the whole of the economy. In Poland, since Russia turned off its gas supplies, the price of gas has quadrupled. Since the beginning of the war, Bloomberg estimates that the price of gas across Europe has increased by 24%. In the meantime, European governments have pledged to spend more on the military and, to cushion against the soaring inflation, decrease taxation.

It doesn’t take economic genius to understand the risks Europe is taking. The threats of mass unemployment and sky-rocketing inflation are too big to be satisfactorily absorbed by national economies. The reduction in taxation, whilst increasing military spending, will mean less investment in other sectors, most likely education, health and social spending since these are the three largest areas of public spending. In the end, it will be – as always – the least advantaged in our European societies who will be the expendable ones to be sacrificed on the altar of war. The poor will get poorer and the vulnerable – including pensioners, low income earners, low skilled and low qualified – will be those thrown off the cliff. Europe will have poorer education, weaker health service and a more fragile social solidarity network. There goes all the rhetoric about having a ‘stronger Europe’!

These economic and social woes have their political impact. It is not surprising that politicians like Marine Le Pen in France surge in popularity. In Italy, populists like Matteo Salvini and the Five Stars are already shifting away from Mario Draghi’s belligerence to reflect the popular sentiment that emerged from surveys published by various sources showing the general opposition of the public towards sending more weapons to Ukraine. Always the crafty demagogue, Viktor Orban in Hungary capitalised on the public sentiment against the war to crush the opposition at the general election held in April.

The fact that those speaking against the warmongering of their European governments are being vilified, demonised and ostracised – even by sections of the media – is adding fuel to the unrest. The inconsistency shown towards quasi-pariah governments, like the PiS-led government in Poland, that since the beginning of the Ukrainian war has seemingly been absolved of all its sins towards the rule of law, democracy and human rights for taking the largest share of Ukrainian refugees, further increase popular cynicism and distrust in Union politics as matters dictated not by some noble principle but mere expediency and power-play.

History has shown us repeatedly that democracy is a fragile ideology when faced with social and political failure, and that war has a tendency to accelerate such failures. It has also shown us that during such times, the people look away from democracy and towards strong personalities that promise to bring back stability and safety. Having lived in times of relative peace we tend to forget such lessons of history. With its focus on making war, rather than seeking peace, Europe is on the verge of recalling those dark times.

Back to our little archipelago of festas and petty partisan squabbles, our government has a constitutional duty to actively pursue peace. So far, the impression I’ve got is that our government has danced to the tune played by European institutions, not so much out of conviction than out of reluctance to stand out as a dissenting voice in the choir. Being an ant amongst elephants doesn’t offer you much advantages.

However, aside from moral duty – since international politics are not really the turf for moral debate – the pursuit of peace is a government’s duty towards its own people.

The Maltese government should intervene as a voice of reason and compromise and ally itself with like-minded states. Striving for peace is also a display of courage, perhaps even more than the senseless blabbering of warmongering bureaucrats that seem so detached from and oblivious to what Europe needs today.