by Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, a former EU commissioner for external affairs, and Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Nowadays, the West can be described as decadent. That does not mean simply that we are addicted to “bread and circuses,” from welfare programs in Europe (which we can barely afford) to the Super Bowl in the United States. It means also that we are increasingly reluctant to allow our own vision of civil liberties and human rights to shape our foreign policies, owing to the potential commercial costs.
Consider the case of the Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who recently died while serving an 11-year prison sentence for calling for democracy in China. The Chinese authorities refused Liu’s request, made just weeks before his death, to seek treatment abroad for his aggressive cancer, and his wife remains under house arrest.
China’s treatment of dissidents like Liu is nothing short of savage. Yet Western leaders have offered only a few carefully phrased diplomatic statements criticizing it.
I can only wonder how many Western leaders in recent years have raised Liu’s case with their Chinese counterparts behind closed doors. Opportunities surely abounded, including at this summer’s G20 meeting, when Liu was on his deathbed.
But it seems unlikely that Western leaders confronted Chinese President Xi Jinping on the matter. After all, when Liu was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010, and an infuriated China attempted to ostracize Norway, the West did not express outrage or display real solidarity with a NATO ally.
China’s treatment of Hong Kong has gone similarly uncontested by Western leaders. China seems intent on violating its obligations, established in the “joint declaration” signed with the United Kingdom, to preserve the city’s way of life and the rule of law until 2047. Already, it has threatened the independence of the judiciary, the autonomy of universities, and freedom of the press. Yet there has been little pushback from the West, including the UK.
Why are Western countries so reluctant to criticize China’s behavior more loudly and consistently? The answer, it seems, is money.
Greece, which proudly claims to be the cradle of democracy, has leaders who largely grew up opposing an authoritarian military government. Yet its cash-strapped government recently blocked the European Union from criticizing China’s human-rights record at the United Nations, because China provides critical investment, particularly from the China Ocean Shipping Company, known as COSCO, which in August 2016 acquired a majority stake in the port of Piraeus. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras – a supposedly radical leftist who, paying homage to Che Guevara, named his son Ernesto – has become a Chinese patsy.
The West’s moral bankruptcy is on display closer to home, too. The EU continues to hold back from condemning the thuggery of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has proudly boasted of his belief in “illiberal democracy” (an oxymoron if ever there was one). Under Orbán’s leadership, breaches of human-rights conventions in the treatment of refugees have been accompanied by a crackdown on civil society, particularly on organizations that receive money from outside the country.
One notable target of repression is Central European University, a bastion of open debate, teaching, and research in Hungary, which is funded by George Soros. Orbán has even gone so far as to resurrect some of the nastiest anti-Semitic images of 1930s Hungary (an ally of Nazi Germany) to demonize Soros. Yet Orbán himself attended the University of Oxford (where I am Chancellor) on a Soros-funded scholarship, and studied there under the great liberal thinker Isaiah Berlin.
Even as Orbán’s Hungary rejects the obligations of EU membership, it receives more than €5.5 billion ($6.4 billion) from the EU each year, while contributing less than €1 billion to the common budget. Why should European citizens pay so much to a government that thumbs its nose at them and compares the EU to the Soviet Union? At the very least, the EU should apply the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty that allow it to suspend some of the rights of a country that is breaking its rules and showing contempt for its standards and values.
The behavior of Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) government – which shows scant concern for either law or justice – raises similar issues. The government is working to overhaul the constitution, in order to thwart democratic checks and balances. It plainly wants judges to do what politicians tell them, and it does not want the media to be able to say much about it. I daresay that China’s rulers would have no difficulty in understanding the PiS’s approach.
Turkey, of course, is not a member of the EU, nor will it ever become one if it continues along the road of dictatorial repression taken by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, no small fan of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. But, judging by the EU’s growing tolerance of illiberalism, some EU leaders may well be prepared to contemplate a closer relationship with Erdoğan’s Turkey.
Such foreign-policy decadence threatens to undermine the EU’s claim to be a community of values, not just a glorified customs union. As we know from the 1920s and 1930s, as decadence breeds more decadence, the world becomes an increasingly dangerous and unstable place. It is time for Europe – to be joined by the United States after President Donald Trump leaves office – to find our moral compass once again.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
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Project Syndicate 2017