Events in Washington must be wake-up call for all democracy advocates

Disinformation does not operate on the convictions, but seeks to subvert facts

I was shocked, as all democracy advocates and friends of the United States worldwide, by the scenes we witnessed in Washington: a mob assaulting the Capitol Hill to prevent the vote to confirm Joe Biden as President of the country. It had a particular echo for me because I had to remember how, forty years ago, the young Spanish democracy had been threatened by an assault of the Congress of Deputies by a group of military police.

Fortunately, Spain was able to overcome this ordeal, starting since the best years of our modern history.

Wednesday’s bewildering events show how damaged and divided the American society is after four years of Trump administration. Certainly, it cannot be compared with the assault on the Spanish Congress in 1981 or other historic precedents of that type: the security forces, like almost all of the State apparatus and democratic institutions of the United States, fulfilled their duties, as they did in the weeks before, since the 3 November. However, one cannot underestimate the significance of what happened and the potential disaster caused if the matter had derailed even further.

What we saw on Wednesday was only the climax of very worrying developments happening globally in recent years. It must be a wake-up call for all democracy advocates. To fight delusion and attacks on democratic values, and to overcome divisions of our societies. Not only in the US. All over the world, there are political leaders – in opposition and also increasingly in power – ready to undermine democratic institutions.

Everybody needs to understand that if we accept setbacks after setbacks, even if they seem minor, democracy and its values and institutions can eventually and irreversibly perish. To avoid this fate, we must stand up immediately to every violation of the independence of democratic institutions, to every demagogic outbursts by populist leaders, to every inflammatory and hateful speech by demagogues, to every disinformation campaign and fake news that feed and encourage the enemies of democracy.

However, we must also reflect on the root causes of the dynamics that fuel such forces. The worrying success of the opponents of democracy worldwide is also linked to the fact that an increasing number of citizens do not feel sufficiently protected and respected any longer.

There are numerous reasons for this, but they are also on both sides of the Atlantic deeply linked to dysfunctions of our economies over the last few decades. The significant growth in inequalities in our societies, tax evasion and tax havens, the weakening of the ability to regulate large multinational companies, deindustrialisation and high unemployment - all these phenomena have contributed, in Europe as in the United States, to weaken the legitimacy of representative democracy, particularly among the ones at the lower scale of income and wealth.

In Europe, we have begun to act to reverse these trends. We want to better protect our companies and our jobs through the screening of foreign investment and by asking for more reciprocity in our trade relations. We also want to regulate better the activity of large multinational companies, particularly in the digital sector, and to fight more actively for tax justice. And with the Next Generation Europe EU initiative, we intend to strengthen solidarity within Europe by helping the countries most affected by the current crisis. Of course, there still is a long way to go on all these issues, but we are now on the right track.

In case anyone had any doubts, the events in Washington also show that disinformation constitutes a real threat for democracies. As one of my former collaborators at the Spanish Foreign Affairs Ministry has recently written(link is external), democracy is based on the presumption that the free exchange of ideas and opinions will lead a political community to take the best collective decisions. If the information fails, so does democracy, as a car engine that uses an unappropriated fuel.

Unlike classic propaganda, aimed at persuading political ideas, disinformation does not operate on the convictions, but seeks to subvert facts, until they form a parallel reality. It has had tremendous effects in the US. Breaking the consensus on facts and reality means that political debates are not about what measures to take to solve real problems, but about what is the reality to apply policies to. If some people believe that an election was fraudulent, because their leader has been once and again telling them, they will behave accordingly.

Proliferation of disinformation favoured by social networks has powerfully reinforced authoritarian and xenophobic tendencies in our societies. We need to fight this scourge more effectively and guarantee the right of citizens to receive truthful information. We need in particular to fight disinformation campaigns supported by authoritarian regimes. The EEAS has vast experience in that domain and is further increasing its actions in that area.

We also need to be able to better regulate the contents of social networks, while scrupulously respecting freedom of expression. It is not possible for this regulation to  be carried out mainly according to rules and procedures set by private actors. Last December, the European Commission proposed the Digital Services Act, notably to remedy precisely this problem.

Another substantive challenge we face to maintain open and democratic societies and economies is to succeed in reshaping globalisation and rebuilding a multilateral system capable of tackling the dysfunctions that have weakened democracies in recent decades. Given the weight that nationalist and authoritarian regimes have acquired on the world stage, the task will not be easy, but it is essential for all those who believe in democracy and its future. This project must be at the heart of our future relationship with the incoming Biden administration. It also means developing closer ties with the other like-minded democracies around the world. The EU will play its full part in this endeavour.

More broadly, our challenge is to strengthen the faith our democratic societies have in themselves to be able to travel through troubled waters, without following the siren songs of irresponsible populists who always find someone to blame and put forward easy solutions, and without falling into autocratic temptations. We have to work on renewing our social contract in times that are changing and develop stronger collective narratives able to challenge populist doctrines.

Coming back to the horrific scenes at the Capitol: what we witnessed is not the America that we know and identify with the ideals of democracy and freedom. I believe in the strength of US institutions and I am confident that the American democracy will succeed in overcoming the ordeal it is currently going through. I even hope that it will emerge stronger, for the good of its citizens and the whole world.

Josep Borrell is High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of a Stronger Europe in the World. This article was added to HR/VP blog on 10 January.

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