After Europe—the title of the new book by the well-known Bulgarian think tank member Ivan Krastev may sound frightening (or ominous).
It is true that the aftermath of the Brexit referendum gives reason for truly existential questions on the future of the EU. Krastev is, at times, rather pessimistic, and whilst he does not quite forecast a collapse, he does show how and why it may come to pass.
The things that have kept the union together are growing thin—the younger generation does not remember World War II, the geopolitical reasoning seems to have melted away with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and even Vladimir Putin is not such a bogeyman for modern Europeans as was the Empire of Evil. Perhaps it is because of the latter that Krastev thinks the EU is characterised by a selective blindness to world events.
Recalling German Chancellor Merkel’s line from 2014, Krastev asks whether it is Putin or Merkel who actually lives in the real world. He also spends a few pages to prove the erroneousness of both Francis Fukuyama (The End of History) as well as Mark Leonard (Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century). He does not mock, but displays concern and analyses the matter.
There is little to keep the union together (it is worth mentioning that Krastev only touches upon ideological, political and psychological topics, never material factors, which are in abundance), and the immigration crisis has significantly diminished the faith of Europeans in our order and union. The underlying thesis of Krastev’s entire discussion is that it is the immigration crisis (and not Brexit or the eurozone crisis) that has very thoroughly affected European thinking and politics. He is certainly right about some fundamental things. The worst thing about the immigration crisis is not the decreasing solidarity between member states or the final recognition that the EU has no mechanisms for solving an acute operative crisis.
No, the most dangerous consequence of the immigration crisis is that as a result, EU citizens have started demanding borders much more fiercely than before. This includes both exterior and interior borders. However, in Europe, the EU represents globalisation and openness—(re)establishing borders is therefore a fundamentally unacceptable and dangerous concept. And naturally, the immigration crisis makes a citizen of the liberal world think whether our treatment of everybody’s inalienable rights is reconcilable with the fact that exercising those rights depends on one’s place of birth—the levels of freedom and wealth differ from state to state.
Globalisation and the opening of borders also created negative reactions and fear. Changes usually do. At a time when hundreds of thousands “trickle in” across the borders, the reaction is clear not in just the physical (close the borders!) but also in the psychological sense. People that are searching for the old lost “self” and identity are protesting against liberal tolerance. Therefore, they are also protesting against their current liberal elite. From Greece to France, parties with century-old traditions have left the stage during this decade and the old mainstream parties are procuring increasingly less votes all over Europe.
This protest is reflected in the demand for referendums: The Will of the People versus The Plotting of the Small Closed Elite. Krastev analyses in an enjoyable manner three recent referendums in Europe: The Brave (organised by the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in December 2016 over a constitutional amendment), The Ugly (Hungary’s October 2016 migrant quota referendum) and The Mean (the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement referendum organised in Holland in April 2016). The first one taught us that citizens decide which question they wish to answer; the second one, that the application of EU policies can be seemingly stopped by referring to the will of the people; the third, Dutch referendum, that even the minority can be successfully mobilised against the EU. In all cases, however, the people had a taste of victory and it was truly sweet.
For me, the most interesting thought in the book is how liberal democracy has, with its enhancement and protection of minorities, removed the concept of a complete victory from politics (and society as a whole, since the attitudes of leaders also affect citizens). It is true that in a developed democracy we do not solve problems with war; the opponent is not trampled into the ground––he is treated with respect, and people strive for a situation where all parties win something. The people, on the other hand, oftentimes wish to see a clear result, which is where populist, anti-elitist movements and politicians come into play, promising the simplest of things—a clear victory for the majority. Mainstream parties do not stand a chance here—a promise of a half or three-quarter victory, while the other side promises a full one, is anything but desirable.
All of this puts the EU under huge pressure. The belief in its persistence is no longer absolute; its achievements, especially openness, are under attack and (potential) assailants are aware of their strength. So what do we do, where do our strengths lie?
In Krastev’s opinion we were in a worse situation in 2016 compared to 2017. After the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election we at least know that such things can actually happen. This is why we can also take into account the worst case scenario and hope to be better prepared when making plans. Secondly, Krastev has demonstrated that the sense of unity among EU citizens has grown not with cash flows but with joint crisis management. We (the ones who fight) know better what we are fighting for. Krastev claims that in the battle for survival, success lies in the ability to improvise. This is bad news for all the people (and there are also many of them in Estonia) who keep repeating that everything will go back to normal if we just follow commonly established rules.
The first President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, says the same, claiming in his book Europe in the Storm that when a storm has grown very strong, a good compass (knowing where you want to go) is more important than a strong anchor (rules). If things play out according to Krastev’s scenario, we will soon hear more talk in the EU about new rules, more flexible management, and member state groups moving at different paces. We can hear them already. However, does this mean that the anchor has been heaved and the ship is en route to a more secure haven? We cannot say for certain—our participation in those discussions is too small or too shallow.
The book also strongly differentiates between East and West Europe. The discussion in the beginning is of particular interest, stating that East Europeans have a different attitude to a potential EU collapse compared to West Europeans, since they have already seen a union fall (not that Krastev compares the EU and USSR). The difference is that as “their” (the East’s) world collapsed 25–30 years ago, ours may do so now. Secondly, Krastev analyses “Eastern Europe’s Compassion Deficit”. It may seem strange but why do countries that have, for the greater part of the 20th century, seen citizens emigrate or immigrants integrated and currently have a very small number of refugees and an economy that is in dire need of workers, have such a hostile attitude towards accepting refugees? That is because history is of greater importance on our side of Europe and our experiences do not allow us to greet everything connected to globalisation with open arms. We are aware of the dangers of forced multiculturalism. To a less educated reader it may seem paradoxical how modern Eastern Europe belonged to multi-ethnic empires for centuries (which were sometimes quite liberal, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and is now struggling with embracing a new liberal multi-ethnic EU. We know the answer to that too well (even though I still refuse to make any comparisons between the USSR and EU, even jokingly). Krastev also believes that the demand to draw borders also illustrates a desire among East Europeans to stop their own people from emigrating. In addition, Eastern Europe does not carry the guilt of colonisation. Therefore, we may think that since we did not cause all these problems in Africa, why should we contribute to the solution?
Krastev does not offer specific solutions to improve the current situation in the EU. That is the task of political leaders. As a thinker, he has completed his task by producing an outstanding, well-founded evaluation of the current situation in the EU. We can only agree with the quote on the back cover by Madeleine Albright, Former US Secretary of State: “Anyone who cares about the future of the European project should read it carefully”.
The review was first published on the blog Gondori Kroonika––republished here with the author’s permission.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.