Can Europe go wrong? Of course

Political scientist Ivan Krastev talks about the fault lines between West and East.

Hardly any other text dissects the European Union’s current plight as convincingly as Ivan Krastev’s After Europe. In this short book, the Bulgarian political scientist describes how the refugee crisis has revealed long-ignored fault lines between Western and Eastern Europe, but also between voters and elites.

Krastev is a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, where he heads the Democracy in Question research project. Krastev is not a feel-good intellectual – neither in his book nor during our 90-minute interview. He doesn’t claim that everything will be all right. His message to the people and politicians of Europe: It’s no longer a matter of the EU developing pleasantly but of it simply surviving.

Mr Krastev, I recently went to Zurich to hear a speech by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

Oh, how was it?


Of all the people around Trump, I have always considered Bannon the most interesting. Ironically, he calls himself a Leninist. However, he rather reminds me of Trotsky: the glorious leader of the revolution who ultimately lost the internal fight and was left isolated.

Bannon is touring Europe to proclaim the victory of the populist movement. Is he right?

The more interesting question is, what would the victory of populism look like? Imagine for a moment a world where Trump is president of the US, Le Pen is president of France and the AfD is in power in Germany. They would constantly be at war. Bannon comes to Europe and delights in how people jeer Merkel and Clinton. But he can’t offer a plan for what will happen after his side wins. His permanent revolution has inner contradictions that get in the way of internationalisation.

What contradictions?

To Bannon, the world consists of three wars: an internal war against the American form of liberalism, a political war of the West against Islam, and a trade war in which everyone is at war with everyone else. However, he underestimates that European societies are much older, more conservative and more afraid of revolutions. What interest would the Germans or the Swiss have in waging a trade war? This movement is only international in that it shares certain resentments.

In your book you talk a lot about misunderstandings between Western and Eastern Europe that have resurged during the refugee crisis. What is the fundamental difference?

The ethnic composition of societies results in very different experiences. Foreign nationals account for 1.4 per cent of the Hungarian population, in Austria they make up 13 per cent. When Western and Eastern Europeans talk about migration and diversity, they mean different things. Western Europe consists of heterogeneous societies that are looking for a way to manage diversity. Eastern Europe consists of ethnically homogeneous societies that are looking for a way to avoid diversity. Western Europe is dealing with real migration, Eastern Europe is dealing with the idea of migration. However, the idea of it can be much more frightening. We talk a lot about interests and values, but it is experience, most of all, that creates awareness.

“Western Europe is dealing with real migration, Eastern Europe is dealing with the idea of migration.”

You mention that Western Europeans do not understand what emigration means to Eastern European states. What does it mean?

It’s the feeling that the nation is falling apart. When birth rates dropped in the 1960s and 1970s, the small, homogeneous nations of Eastern Europe became increasingly aware that they could disappear at any time. Then came 1989, and people really disappeared ¬– only into the West. Over the past 25 years, ten per cent of Bulgarians have left the country – the young and mobile ones. In every revolution in history, it was the losers who had to leave the country. The revolution of 1989 was the first where the winners emigrated and the losers stayed behind. Migration is a form of revolution too; it changes everybody’s life.

How so?

Let me tell you a story. The former Italian interior minister Giuliano Amato once visited an old woman in Rome who had not left her apartment for four years. Amato asked her why, and whether it was because she had had bad experiences with migrants in her neighbourhood. She said no, everyone was nice to her. But she said she had been living in this neighbourhood her entire life. One day she had stepped outside and everything seemed strange to her. The smells, the streets. The woman wasn’t even angry. But she didn’t feel at home any more, and so she stayed inside.

Ivan Krastev

Ivan Krastev is a political scientist who was born in Lukovit, Bulgaria in 1965. He is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. In 2017 he published the essay After Europe, in which he describes how the refugee crisis has divided the EU into East and West, what the rejection of refugees has to do with the revolution of 1989, and why autocracy seems to be on the rise in Eastern Europe – and why this poses a threat to the EU as a whole.

Photo: © ERSTE Foundation/Markus Schwarze

Things change, you can’t protect people from it.

No, you can’t, but we often forget that. We focus on people who actively change their lives by moving to Europe from Africa, for example. And it is a good thing that they change their lives. But then there are a great many people who never do that, although the world that surrounds them changes. These people feel they have lost their roots. And they can’t go back because there is no going back. People like Bannon take advantage of this feeling. The post-war generation in Western Europe has only known peace, growth and stability throughout their lives. Historically, this is the exception. Now things are changing again, and they are frightened because their sense of security is disappearing.

What answers can the left offer to the migration crisis?

It is no coincidence that the political left is currently one of the casualties of the migration crisis. The left has a problem: To people who don’t believe in a global revolution or in correcting social imbalances, internationalism is dead. It becomes a burden. Workers move to the right because the right promises economic and cultural protectionism. There’s a wonderful book by Didier Eribon.

Returning to Reims.

I don’t think anyone has provided a better description of what’s happening now. A child grows up in a destitute working-class family that always votes for the communist party out of a sense of class pride. In cultural terms, the people there hardly differ from people today; they had sexist and racist tendencies back then as well. But at some point, they start to feel like peasants at the beginning of the 20th century: Their world, their relevance is fading. And the right wing promises them it will preserve that world a little bit. Today, left-wing parties are shaped by academics, state employees and pensioners, because workers vote for the right and young leftists are not interested in party politics. If you seek advice from a psychologist , you are often asked three questions: Who are you? Where are you from? Where do you want to go? At the moment, the left is incapable of answering any of these questions satisfactorily.

There has been a lot of debate about whether we have focused too much on identity politics.

If you tell a US worker somewhere in the Midwest that Hillary Clinton is an oppressed minority for being a woman, he’ll get furious. Because he can see that she’s the crème de la crème of the elite. Overall, things are more complicated though. We are at the beginning of a power shift between ethnic groups, between the sexes. For a long time, nobody has recognised the right of the white working class to be the losers in this development. We don’t even understand how they think because we don’t have anything in common with how they live. We’re sitting here in a large library, drinking coffee, eating cake. So it’s a bit ridiculous for us to tell people what they are allowed to think and say.

Some say that addressing people’s anxieties undermines the populists’ position. Other say that this ultimately reinforces their agenda. Which is correct?

I don’t know. I think we are experiencing not only a shakeup of power relations, as I said before, but a major cultural shift. It reminds me of the 1970s but in the opposite direction. Back then we had very young societies, a growing economy, and universities were expanding enormously. The ideas of those young academic elites changed societies for decades afterwards. Their concern was for the rights of marginalised people. Today we are talking about rights again, but this time it is the rights of the majority of the population. Ten years ago identity politics was reserved for minorities. Today the white majority population uses it too. It is easy to condemn this. But you can also acknowledge that the majority population is not entirely wrong about certain things. Their position on the migration issue is legitimate: It cannot be a solution for the EU to simply open its borders.

Isn’t that a straw man argument? In reality, countries don’t argue about whether to open or close their borders but to what extent they should do it.

If we look at the development of America through history, society there was shaped by continual shifts between openness and isolation. This is normal; it’s always a matter of degree. Society needs time to adjust to new circumstances. Angela Merkel won the last election – but not because she opened Germany’s borders. And not because she closed them. But because she did both. We will have no option but to integrate certain arguments of the populists into our own policy.

That’s how Sebastian Kurz won the election in Austria. Is it a good or a bad strategy?

We’ll know ten years from now what’s good or bad. I don’t demonise Kurz. Nor does it make any sense to me to compare him to Orbán. For two reasons. Kurz is a typical post-1968 conservative. He is against some of the progressives’ achievements, although he grew up with them, and certain forms of discrimination are beyond his intellectual grasp. Eastern European conservatives reject modernity as a whole. But more importantly, I don’t see any attempt in Austria to change the relation between checks and balances. Kurz wants to rebuild society, not the rules of democracy.

“It’s no longer a matter of the EU developing pleasantly but of it simply surviving.”

Your book prophesies a possible end to Europe as we know it. How do we save Europe?

I think the question should be put more simply: What is the alternative? Do we really believe that our lives would be easier and better without the EU? We’re living in a much more interesting world, we have a new sense of space, opportunities and togetherness. People in Vienna, Lisbon and Warsaw all talk about the same problems. During the financial crisis the Germans became interested in the Greek economy – in their typical arrogant manner, but still. That’s incredible, don’t you think? The current crises are an opportunity. We are now more honest with each other, about our traumas, our experiences. And we’re no longer bullshitting ourselves that everything is a win-win situation for everyone. Can it go wrong? Of course. But it is an opportunity.

Eric Ponse, a correspondent in Brussels for many years, recently wrote that we still paint the picture of Brussels as a boring place of consensus, although it has been a battlefield for at least two years.

I think he’s right. Brussels is a strange place, I don’t understand it. Brussels is teeming with extremely capable people but it has a strange lack of politics. It’ll be good if this changes, becomes more confrontational. I’ve always accused the EU of regarding political problems as problems of communication rather than problems of policy. Every policy has winners and losers. What’s really dangerous is not to argue with the other person but to delegitimise their position. Because that leaves no room for compromise.

Can Austria’s Kurz play a mediator role between Western and Eastern Europe?

I think we also overrate the parallels in the migration issue – for reasons I have already given. But Kurz is a talented politician. He will channel some of the fears Eastern Europe has. What will be really interesting about the discussion of the future of Europe is who will argue with whom. I hope it will be a debate between Kurz and Macron. Kurz articulates a certain conservative vision of Europe, while Macron’s vision is much more progressive. But they are different poles of the same European tradition. It’s different with Orbán and Kaczyński. Europe as we know it cannot work under Orbán.

Why not?

When Orbán says that Europe was a role model for us 25 years ago, while now we are a role model for Europe, he makes a similar mistake to Bannon: He fails to bear in mind that societies are different. You will never hear any Bulgarian prime minister talk about Muslims the way Orbán does. Simply because we have a large Muslim minority and share a border with Turkey. We cannot afford to talk like Orbán. And I don’t even think he understands that.

If we talk again five years from now, will the European Union still exist?

It will be a different Union. But today’s Union is also different from that of the 1980s. Accidents are what I’m most afraid of. A professor friend of mine complained to me in May of 2016 that all of the newspapers that had asked him to comment on the possibility of Brexit were wasting his time. He listed numerous reasons why leaving the EU would be irrational madness for the United Kingdom and wouldn’t happen – ‘So why even discuss the possibility of it?’ At one point I interrupted him and asked: ‘Has nobody ever told you that shit just happens sometimes?’ If the EU breaks apart, it will have been just that: a combination of bad luck and wrong decisions.

Original in German. First published in DATUM in April 2018. Translated into English by Barbara Maya. The Interview was conducted by Jonas Vogt.

This text is protected by copyright: © Satzbau Verlags GmbH/Jonas Vogt. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán listens during a debate concerning Hungary’s situation as part of a plenary session at the European Parliament on September 11, 2018 in Strasbourg. Photo: © Frederick Florin/AFP/

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