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The CHALLENGE project responds to widespread concerns about the resort to specific illiberal practices by contemporary liberal regimes. These practices are linked with the identification of increasing insecurities globally, insecurities that are widely interpreted as obliging sterner policies from the authorities and, consequently, new constraints on principles of liberty under law and presumptions about the innocence of individuals. Specifically, the project examines tensions created by claims that ‘security is the first freedom’ and that a new ‘balance’ has to be established to manage the global scale of contemporary dangers. The project focuses on the justification of these policies and constraints on grounds of emergency, necessity and prevention in a radically transformed global environment, and the impact these policies have on civil liberties, political rights and social cohesion.
Five years after 9/11, no one doubts that liberal polities have resorted to many illiberal practices, or that these practices have been legitimised by sweeping claims about global dangers. Their scale is both revealed and obscured by enquiries into the war in Iraq. Serious dangers are apparent, but who can now say that the connection between such dangers and the mobilisation of tougher practices of security and constraints on liberal freedoms is clear? The narratives of the intelligence services, security specialists and professional politicians more generally have been called into widespread doubt. They have been called into doubt not only in relation to their knowledge of the current situation but also to their knowledge of and capacity to anticipate the future with any accuracy. Such doubts extend beyond the conduct of this particular war. Indeed, the tendency to focus narrowly on the conflict in Iraq obscures a broader pattern of surveillance in which illiberal practices are being justified by a complex field of routinised transactions among many transnationally organised agencies, institutions and interests, one that also thrives on weak claims to knowledge and apocalyptic visions of a dangerous future.
There is also no doubt that liberal polities have long resorted to illiberal practices of government, policing and social control. Indeed, the alleged need to resort to illiberal practices has always generated difficult questions about the legitimacy of specific forms of liberal government, policing, social control and claims to authority. Security policy especially has been assumed to be at least partly beyond the reach of democratic participation. Hence, for example, the crucial role of the principle of the rule of law and formal declarations of war in the limitation of arbitrary decision under extreme conditions. Longstanding and very serious questions about the character of modern political life are at stake in this respect. Yet while highly generalised claims about security as the first freedom may remind us of a broader heritage of liberal achievements and their limits, they also suggest important changes in the way coercive and restrictive policies are now justified, both domestically and internationally. Both the scale and the strategies through which new illiberal practices generated by emerging European and transnational actors are now justified threaten to take us well beyond established trade-offs between liberal aspirations and illiberal necessities. They demand urgent attention and especially a more vigorous interplay between innovative forms of scholarship and public debates about appropriate policy. This is our objective.
To this end, CHALLENGE seeks to provide a critical assessment of the liberties of citizens and others living within the EU and how they are affected by the proliferation of discourses about insecurity and the exchange of new techniques of surveillance and control. In this way, it is concerned to facilitate a reconceptualisation of the transformation of the international order and the place of the EU within it, and especially to enable a broader range of perspectives about the conditions under which we are asked to make judgements about the need for severe limits on liberty and the rule of law and the legitimacy of new forms of institutional authority and technologies of social control. Specifically, so far the project has explored the following broad themes:
1. The apparent radicalisation of specific forms of transnational political violence and its effects on liberal policies.
2. The threat assessments produced through technologies of risk management and the development of new technologies of surveillance – prevention, profiling, data transfer, biometric identifiers – and the degree to which ‘security’ has been reduced to a need for surveillance and control.
3. The changing forms taken by logics of suspicion and practices of exception and derogation, especially in relation to established understandings of the rule of law, to the multidimensional and continuous reframing of the enemy, and to the practices enabled by this reframing that are used to exclude or otherwise target specific groups.
4. The impact on the rights and freedoms of citizens and foreigners.
5. The relation between the internal and external impact of illiberal practices, especially in the context of transatlantic relations but also of an increasingly interconnected world order, and the place of the European Union in this world.
This interim report provides an overview of the main research results achieved in the first two years and a half of the project. In addition, one of the main goals of this report is to further strengthen and expand its core theoretical and conceptual framework. As we will show, one of the core factors that characterise this project is its integrated nature. In each of the themes highlighted in this report there has been a direct contribution of various interdisciplinary perspectives by different teams. In fact, CHALLENGE shows both how partners engaged primarily in empirical research have been inspired and guided by those developing more theoretical assessments of the issues at stake and how more theoretical work has been reshaped by the enormous complexities revealed by empirical analysis. These processes of mutual exchange, collaboration and understanding have been a crucial feature of the integrative character of the project.
In addition, while the project was structured in empirical and theoretical terms, during the first two years and half most of its work packages (WP) have directly or indirectly responded to current policy dilemmas, and have provided a reflexive understanding of the actions to be adopted with the EU. Our previous anticipation of well-defined and differentiated disciplinary dimensions has proved to be rather limited, and the pertinence of every WP to the policy arena has been one positive element that the project as a whole has become increasingly conscious of. Of course we are a large and diverse group, so extensive discussion has revealed both a range of diverse interpretations of the overall situation and considerable common ground.
Everyone recognises that we confront significant transformations in practices of violence expressed most dramatically by the activities of Al Quaeda and similar networks. Everyone understands the pressures for practices of coercion and control brought by such violence, as well as both the necessity for specific responses and the way such responses involve profound choices involving fundamental social values. Everyone is familiar with various ways in which any responses to new practices of violence will be played out on a complex field of institutional interests, social forces and political judgements and will be subject to all the usual dynamics of incomplete knowledge, partial perspectives and unintended consequences. Everyone is also persuaded, to a greater or lesser degree, that recent responses to transformations in practices of violence have themselves generated a climate of fear, unease and suspicion at the transnational level in ways that raise very serious questions about a shift towards new illiberal practices within liberal societies. It is clear that contemporary forms of illiberalism are sustained not only by broadly accepted interpretations of new patterns of violence but also by a political culture of unease linked with new forms of collaboration between the bureaucracies concerned with security as well as with the development of a private industry concerned with new technologies of surveillance. What is not clear is how we are to come to informed and reasonable judgements about an appropriate proportionality between the dangers and risks posed by new practices of violence and the intensity of practices of coercion, surveillance and control they require. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, questions about such judgements have been at the heart of our discussions, which have especially turned on different assessments of the degree to which new historical and structural conditions have provided opportunities for political, institutional and commercial advantage that have helped to shape and intensify a new politics of fear and unease at the cost of entrenched liberal principles.
For some among us, many recent trends can be explained as a consequence of various opportunistic instrumental moves taken by some governments for ideological reasons to transform class and race relations in their countries in alliance with the interests of that fraction of capitalism whose interests are linked with globalisation. For others, such trends are less the consequences of intentional action than of the more generalised effects of the climate of fear generated after 9/11, which produced a dynamics of ‘insecuritisation’ that has paralysed various mechanisms of checks and balances within liberal democracies. Some invoke broad historical patterns tending towards a global empire and generalised forms of exceptionalism. Others identify significant changes in governmental regimes and state institutions, but feel that while liberal democratic norms are being stretched they remain remarkably resilient. We also differ in the relative significance we attribute to conscious ideological intentions and to broader historical and structural forces. That is to say, as a group, we encompass many if not most of the scholarly traditions now struggling to make sense of a transnational political environment that clearly exceeds the grasp of any single scholarly perspective, and much of the strength of the project has come from a shared willingness to work across these traditions.
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