Li Qiang：How to understand European Politics
Prof. Li Qiang is the Professor on Political Theory at the Peking University. Concurrently, he is also the head of the Office of Humanities and Social Sciencse at the university.
Q: Over the past one or two decades since WWII, what are the key factors that have a major impact on European politics?
A： I think the most significant event happened in European politics and economy after WWII, especially during the past one or two decades, is the European integration, which can be traced back to European Communities and later developed into the EU. A number of agreements on integration including the Lisbon Treaty have been passed within the framework of the EU, the most significant of which is the launching of the single currency, the Euro. But the integration process, if looked at from the perspective of political science, is fraught with both innovations and uncertainties. The most important is that EU has created a broad framework of integration under which many countries have adopted Euro as the single currency.
But recently, the Eurozone are confronted with a daunting challenge which is by no means a temporary and local one and has nevertheless posed a fundamental challenge to the political structure of the EU. As a legal currency of many countries, it calls for the support of a common monetary and fiscal policy and the eventual establishment of European Central Banks promises a guarantee for such a common currency. But it should be noted that the current framework of the EU is only a partial political integration with each nation-state having its own government and financial policies, which will inevitably be subject to the impact of political considerations of major party in that member state.
To win an election, the best way for the major political parties of a member state is to cut taxes and increase social welfare. This will invariably result in policies contradictory to the common currency policy of the Eurozone. So I think Europe has made tremendous progress in the economic integration process, but the gap between economic/currency integration and the political integration has created more problems and conflicts and will beset Europe for a fairly long time to come. So in the future development of European politics, it is very difficult for political integration to make substantive progress unless a serious crisis can jolt people into an awareness of the urgent necessity to speed up the political integration. Otherwise it is extremely difficult for a statesman to persuade his electorate to give support to political integration. Therefore, unless substantive progress in political integration has been made in Europe, the tension and contradiction between the fast growing economic integration and the lagging political integration will have a long-term and decisive influence on European politics and economy in the future.
Q: How would evaluate the latest development of liberalism in the West? What about the dynamics of liberalism after the international financial crisis and European debt crisis?
A: It is very important to draw a clear division between international financial crisis and European debt crisis. I am not an expert of economics though, theoretically speaking, the underlying reason for the outbreak of international financial crisis is its liberalism and neo-liberalism policies and the lack of sufficient supervision over the financial sectors in the highly globalized interconnected society. Therefore it will prompt people to give further reflection on the questions of financial liberalization and supervision. In this sense more financial supervision will be required and moderate readjustment to neo-liberalism thinking and policies guiding the financial sector will be made in the future.
As for the European debt crisis, it is quite different from the international financial crisis we have mentioned. While the international financial crisis is related to neo-liberal thinking in a certain extent, the European debt crisis is actually a result of the long period European social welfare policy. In other words, neo-liberalism in Europe is greatly contained without being given a chance to develop into its full proportions. So the European debt crisis is in essence an outcome of excessively high social welfare policy without corresponding tax policy commensurate with its development.
Since the late 19th century, especially after WWII, a system of high social welfare has been well established in most European courtiers, where the political power has long been controlled by the ruling Social Democratic Party. Even during their absence, the Conservative party still maintained such a policy. To seek support and votes in the election, the political party in power is always reluctant to raise tax and even slash taxation, which ultimately plunge these countries into serious debt crisis. The sovereign debt crisis now plaguing Greek, Ireland, Spain and Italy is only a tip of the iceberg. In fact, debt ratio of most European countries is much higher from global perspective.
Q: Each nation has its own political culture. So, broadly speaking, what do you think are the main features of European political culture?
A: Historically, European culture has two main sources, Greek culture, which stresses reason and the spirit of science, and Christian culture, both of which are of great significance for us to gain a better understanding of European political culture. And these two sources of European culture tend to give full expression to the so-called universalism.
Most Europeans also believe that their culture represent the universal values, whereupon they build other values such as tolerance and pluralism. In modern times, European culture began to develop rich contents for modern civilization. It comprises such values as freedom, democracy, constitutionalism, rule of law, which are all based on individualism. They have not only become the self-proclaimed features but also have become the predominant cultural characteristics in Europe.
Q: You have accomplished a lot in the area of European politics, could you share with us your experience in your scholarly research?
A: I am not a scholar in European studies in the strict sense, but my research is nevertheless closely related to Europe. My academic interest mainly covers European political thought and political philosophy. Here I would like to share with you some of my experiences in this regard. The first most important thing to study contemporary European politics is to get a thorough understanding of the European history. It is always advisable to pursue one’s scholarly research through an detailed reading of classic works of the preeminent thinkers and its early history. Given my copious reading in European history and classic works, I am now able to get a deep and enlightened understanding of what is going on in Europe from currently. For example, my understanding of the contradictions between the fast growing European economic integration and its lagging political integration and the prediction of the possible fallout of the crisis draws immensely on my interpretation of European history and the political classic works.
Another point I want to mention is that many scholars tend to regard European studies as a regional research area or area studies, which is only the partial truth. From a historical perspective, what encompass the main contents of cotemporary European humanities and social sciences are based on its politics, economic and cultural legacies. Much of the experience that Europe relies on at present, including the European integration process, is also closely pertinent to its innovations in such areas as politics, economy and legal system. Therefore research on European studies can help us not only gain a better understanding of its economy, politics and culture of a particular region, but also obtain sound knowledge about European politics, economy and social sciences through the practices it has implemented in these areas and their theoretical thinking of these practices. In this sense, I think scholars of European studies are lucky in the sense that they can not only draw upon their experience in area studies but also furnish themselves with the knowledge in related social science and humanity studies.
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