The Beginning of the End

The Beginning of the End, Ivan Krastev, After Europe, University of Pennsylvania Press, 120 pp, 2017

Not so long ago, the European Union was touted as a model of aspiration. Member states were consolidating cooperation and integration via the Treaty of Lisbon and Turkey still wanted to join. The EU was so cool that rapper Jay Z ashed his cash in euros, not the standard hip-hop dollars, in a music video. In 2006, Mark Leonard, director of the European Council of Foreign Relations, authored a book called Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century. “Imagine a world of peace, prosperity, and democracy,” he wrote. “A world where small countries are as sovereign as large ones.”

If only Europe operated that way, never mind the world.

In the years since, Europe sat idle as Russia invaded Ukraine, the global economy collapsed, and liberal democracy receded in places as diverse as Hungary, Poland, and the UK. Small EU member states like Greece found that sovereignty is a word that can have multiple meanings. Now, even as Donald Trump openly mocks the EU leaders and unilaterally imposes trade tariffs, Europe’s private sector rushes to adhere to his sanctions on Iran so as not to offend the capricious American president. In short, times and the mood have changed, so much so that serious people—no longer just Euroskeptic propagandists—wonder whether the EU will last.

In his latest book, After Europe, the Bulgarian intellectual Ivan Krastev cites the usual suspects of refugees and populism as the centrifugal forces pulling Europe apart. He goes on to point to a series of paradoxes that expose the difficulty of bridging the EU’s many divisions. In today’s Europe, a “paralyzing uncertainty captures people’s imagination” and people are “torn between hectic activity and fatalistic passivity,” he writes. The continent’s problems go beyond the practical, Krastev says, to raise questions about whether the core Enlightenment values that defined the European project still hold. “[S]ocieties sometimes do commit suicide,” he warns.

What It Means to Be European

At just 120 pages, After Europe reads like a long newspaper op-ed piece. Rather than a comprehensive analysis of Europe’s politics and future, it feels as if Krastev is working out his thoughts on the page. To do so he weaves together studies and observations from other scholars (John Rawls, Ken Jowitt, Tony Judt, etc.) with allusions to literature (Joseph Roth, Jose Saramago, Michel Houellebecq, among others) to illustrate his points. This seeming lack of coherence might be problematic, except that watching Krastev think things out is interesting in its own right. The main argument—so much as there is one, and it is not particularly original—is that Europe is under strain for two reasons. The first is the refugee crisis, which Krastev describes as “Europe’s 9/11.” The second is the growing dissonance between liberalism and democracy.

“The inability and unwillingness of liberal elites to discuss migration, and contend with its consequences, and the insistence that existing policies are always positive sum (i.e., win-win), are what make liberalism for so many synonymous with hypocrisy,” he writes. Though it is hard to see how anti-EU forces, for example the leaders of the Brexit campaign, are not at least as hypocritical.

Times and the mood have changed, so much so that serious people—no longer just Euroskeptic propagandists—wonder whether the EU will last.

More than a mere test of tolerance or openness to diversity, the refugee crisis has prompted a reconsideration of what it means to be European. Krastev cites the Hungarian philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás, who argues that Enlightenment values also logically demand universal citizenship. If all men (and women) are created equal, then regardless of their nationality they should have the same rights, the argument goes. Taken to its logical conclusion this means that people either need the right to migrate wherever they want, or standards of living in all countries need to be roughly the same. In practice, of course, neither is true.

“How can our universal rights be reconciled with the fact that we exercise them as citizens of unequally free and prosperous societies?” Krastev asks.

The Absence of Willingness to Aid Fellow Europeans

While he goes on to call migration “the only genuinely pan-European crisis,” Krastev does not differentiate the degree to which different EU member states experience the crisis. To say nothing of the attempted quota policy, Italy (where 130,000 people from Africa and the Middle East applied for asylum in 2017) and Poland (where there were 5,000 total applications, 4,200 of which came from Russia and Ukraine) did not have anything like the same experience. While true that migration fueled political tensions in virtually every EU member state, to compare imagined trauma or paranoia with the actual burden of coping with hundreds of thousands migrants washing up on your shores is tantamount to having equal sympathy for a hypochondriac and a cancer patient.

Europe is under strain for two reasons. The first is the refugee crisis, which Krastev describes as “Europe’s 9/11.” The second is the growing dissonance between liberalism and democracy.

On this issue, the most ominous indication that the EU is in trouble is not that the migrants have unearthed a latent fear of foreigners or Islam, but rather that most member states were not willing to aid frontline states— fellow Europeans. Not only did most Europeans choose fear and political expediency over aiding people fleeing war zones, they were also unwilling to help other Europeans who—because of an accident of geography—had no choice but to deal with the issue head-on.

In the book’s second section (there are only two chapters, plus intro and conclusion), Krastev points to the mounting tension between democracy and liberalism, especially liberal economics. He paraphrases the Harvard scholar Dani Rodrik in outlining the complexities confronting contemporary democratic leaders—none of which are limited to Europe. “We can restrict democracy in order to gain competitiveness in international markets. We can limit globalization in the hope of developing democratic legitimacy at home. Or we can globalize democracy at the expense of national sovereignty,” Krastev writes.

The Central European, Western European, and Brussels Paradoxes

In a striking comparison, he notes that while the Chinese and Russians can change their economic systems but not their governments, the inverse is true in Europe—here governments frequently change but economic policy is restricted by common EU rules on budget deficits and, in the case of eurozone members, the inability to conduct independent monetary policy. Along with practical difficulties, there is public animus over the realization that politics is no longer capable of playing any role in economic policymaking—and hence the increased emphasis on identity issues in the political arena. Worse yet, Krastev contends, there is a trio of contradictions, which he labels as the Central European, Western European, and Brussels paradoxes, that hinder efforts to overcome such impasses.

The most ominous indication that the EU is in trouble is not that the migrants have unearthed a latent fear of Islam, but rather that most member states were not willing to aid frontline states—fellow Europeans.

While Central Europeans remain overwhelmingly pro-EU in surveys (earlier this year a poll found 92 percent of Poles support EU membership), they nonetheless support anti-EU governments, Krastev notes. His interesting explanation is that Central Europe pursued EU membership and democratization in parallel, and thus countries in the region failed do develop their own political (read: democratic) identities. As they do so today, populist nationalism has surged. Rather than representing the public interest, politicians strive to affirm common experiences. This generally requires juxtaposing those commonalities to some real or imagined “other.” In a typically colorful example, Krastev points to a 2003 study in the UK that young Brits felt better represented by contestants on the television show Big Brother than they did by their elected officials.

Central Europe pursued EU membership and democratization in parallel, and thus countries in the region failed do develop their own political identities.

“Political identities proposed by populist parties are not much different from the identities constructed by reality shows,” he writes.

Young Cosmopolitans Do Not Campaign for EU Reform

As for the Western European paradox, Krastev wonders why a young, cosmopolitan generation does not actively campaign for EU reform. Amid a surge of populism, why is there not something like a pro-EU populist movement, he asks? While many call on the EU to be more democratic and representative, young people tend to be skeptical of institutions—including the elected bodies, Krastev notes. Furthermore, while the Internet is useful for organizing large groups of people, Krastev argues that this means social movements now tend to gain attention and momentum too quickly, before they are mature enough to take coherent action. This leads to a feeling of “participation without representation,” and breeds further discontent with the system.

In fact, there is a nascent pan-European movement to reform the EU, though it is unclear how much Krastev would agree with its goals. The Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), was founded by Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance Minister, and Srećko Horvat, a Croatian philosopher, but has ample support among leftists in the EU’s so-called “old member states” as well. DiEM25 purports to support a “full- edged democracy with a sovereign Parliament respecting national self-determination and sharing power with national Parliaments, regional assemblies and municipal councils.” In short, they wish to politicize European politics. Two parties associated with DiEM25, the Czech Pirates and Denmark’s The Alternative have seats in their respective national parliaments.

The Leadership Class Has the Option of Fleeing Faster Than Ever Before

As for Krastev’s Brussels paradox, he argues that meritocratic nature of EU administration—on the surface a good thing—also breeds resentment. Meritocracy, Krastev writes, is a system where “inequality is justified on the basis of differences in achievement,” a system that leads to the “loss of political community.” While many elites today insist they have reached their status through hard work, studying for and passing exams that others do not, the best predictor of someone’s lifetime income remains their place of birth, Krastev notes. Furthermore, most elites today have chances to travel or work abroad that the average person does not. This preys on fears that at the first sign of trouble, the leadership class has the option of fleeing the country faster and easier than ever before. Bankers go to London, bureaucrats to Brussels, and Eastern European doctors to Germany. “Unlike a century ago, today’s insurgent leaders aren’t interested in nationalizing industries,” Krastev writes. “Instead, they promise to nationalize their elites.”

While many call on the EU to be more democratic and representative, young people tend to be skeptical of institutions—including the elected bodies, Krastev notes.

Similarly to his discussion of the migrant crisis, Krastev seems to give equal standing to people who carry imagined grievances with those who are systematically denied access to advancement to elite status. Imagined grievances may well have consequences for the political system, but the solution is not to do away with meritocracy, rather to make sure that it is genuinely meritocratic. Krastev does not say as much, but if he is arguing that the Brussels meritocracy is not, he is right. Any system that claims to be founded on objective effort and achievement-based standards, but nonetheless perpetuates multi-generational inequality, is equal parts dishonest and unjust and meritocracy in name only.

While many elites today insist they have reached their status through hard work, studying for and passing exams that others do not, the best predictor of someone’s lifetime income remains their place of birth.

In the end, Krastev’s provocative title After Europe is misleading. While the fact that someone as serious as Krastev is beginning to ponder an “after” at all is cause enough for alarm, he presents no real proposals here for what might come next or for what do to avoid the disintegration of the EU. He hopes a series of compromises will allow liberalism to outlast populists, exhausting their hollow rhetoric. While he says that the “smart money” is betting against the EU, recent years show us that we do not understand politics nearly as well as we once thought we did. “Survival is a little like writing a poem: not even the poet knows how it’s going to end before it does,” he writes.

If survival and endurance are all the EU project can now offer Europeans, this is indeed the beginning of the end.

Benjamin Cunningham

Benjamin Cunningham is a Prague based writer and journalist. He contributes to The Economist, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Politico, and is an opinion columnist for the Slovak daily Sme. Benjamin also works as a professor of journalism at Anglo-American University and produces documentary films for Al Jazeera English. He was formerly editor-in-chief of The Prague Post and a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna.

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