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Beyond the Great Disruption: confidence is finally returning to Europe

Yet none of the crises that fractured the EU in 2016 have been resolved – can its resilience remain?

The paradox of 2017 was that while the European Union failed to solve any of the crises that were tearing it apart the previous year, the interplay between these crises created, miraculously, the conditions that helped the bloc to survive. The union is as fragile as ever, but its chances of enduring are much better than they were a year ago.

 In 2016, the unthinkable – the disintegration of the EU – started to look inevitable. A combination of shock, despair and fatalism had paralysed Europeans’ political imagination. For the first time in the history of the European project, a member state had voted to leave the union. And the member state that was heading for the door was not some remote eastern European country, struggling in the periphery, but Britain – Europe’s oldest democracy and advocate of free-trade liberalism. “EU leaders were terrified,” wrote the commentator Mark Leonard, “that other member states could succumb to the same combination of economic uncertainty, cultural anxiety, and political alienation that propelled Britain toward the exit.” The election of Donald Trump as US president in November 2016 was yet another surprise from hell. European elites felt abandoned and betrayed by history. A united, liberal Europe was an American project – the European movement had even been funded by the US government – and now, suddenly, President Trump was making it clear that the world America created after the fall of communism in 1989 did not suit the superpower any more. German chancellor Angela Merkel summed it up when she said that “the era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent”.

So, unsurprisingly, after 2016 – the year of the Great Disruption – 2017 turned out to be more of a kidney stone of a year for Europe: it brought pain, but also relief. The disease was not terminal. And although none of the numerous problems that have fractured the union – the eurozone crisis, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the plight of refugees – have gone away, over the course of the year, European economies grew confidently, unemployment declined and opinion polls across the continent registered restored trust in Europe’s future. Unexpectedly, in 2017, it was the pro-Europeans who took the initiative. The Cambridge Dictionary crowned “populism” its word of the year in 2017. In 2015, that word was “austerity”, while in 2016, it was “paranoid”. Paranoia born of austerity led to populism. And in 2018, populism is unlikely to disappear. The outcome of the Italian elections in March could change the mood in Europe again. But what made 2017 different was the emergence of pro-European populism: a political movement that coupled the idea of Europe with the demand for change.

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In the 19th century, European high society fell in love with the quadrille, a dance in which participants continuously changed partners and roles. The dance was particularly popular in Vienna, where changing partners and moderating ambitions was how the Habsburg empire had survived for centuries, regardless of its declining military might and unimpressive economy. Dynastic marriages were the Habsburg version of the now fashionable idea of “soft power”. It was the awareness of its own vulnerability that contributed most to the success of the Habsburg monarchy in keeping its empire, while losing power and influence. Some historians tend to believe that had the central powers won the First World War, this empire would have survived intact and probably expanded.

 In the last decade, the EU has been practising a dance that very much resembles the 19th century quadrille. The union was dancing with the eurozone crisis of 2009-10; it was taken out of balance by Russia’s annexation of Crimea; it was spun by Brexit
and it was profoundly destabilised by the refugee crisis. All had a deep impact on the way Europeans see their future. Each could have brought the end of the European project. Yet, contrary to the expectations of the Eurosceptics, the union has survived and its chances of enduring have increased.

 The financial crisis came first and made many western Europeans fearful that their children’s lives would be worse than their own. The EU no longer acts as a convergence machine that makes struggling countries richer and narrows the gap between the wealthiest and poorest members. In 20 years’ time, even if the reforms in Greece work, the income gap between Germans and Greeks will be similar to the one between West Germans and Greeks on the day in 1981 when Greece joined the EU. What is worse, the euro crisis did not simply ruin the economies of countries such as Greece and Spain; it split the union between debtors and creditors, a dangerous division that mocks the very idea that the EU is composed of politically equal members. The relationship between a creditor and a debtor is never one characterised by equality.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has also had far-reaching consequences. It has put into question the naive belief of European elites that in the 21st century, war has been consigned to the dustbin of history – and that what really matters is economic strength and the power to attract investment. The policy shift in Washington, DC brought about by Trump’s election makes clear that Europeans cannot rely on the US for their security, as they have done since 1945.

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But there was one issue, in particular, that shattered the very foundations of the European project: the refugee crisis. Two decades ago, the Hungarian philosopher and former dissident, Gáspár Miklós Tamás, observed that the Enlightenment – in which the idea of the European Union is intellectually rooted – demands a belief in universal citizenship, meaning people should enjoy the same rights regardless of the passport they carry. But universal citizenship requires one of two things: either people enjoy absolute freedom of movement to search for jobs and higher standards of living, or the huge economic and political disparities between countries need to disappear, allowing people to enjoy their rights equally in every place.

Neither of these is going to happen soon, if ever. We live in a world in which people move more easily between countries than at any time before. And it is becoming almost impossible to distinguish between migrants and refugees. In a world defined by rising wealth inequality between states and within states, where social media enables people to peek at the ways even the most distant others live, migration has become the new revolutionary force. This is not the 20th century revolution of the masses, but a 21st century exit-driven revolution enacted by individuals and families. To succeed, this new revolution doesn’t require a coherent ideology, political movement or even leadership. A simple crossing of the border into the EU is more attractive than any utopia. For so many of today’s damnés de la terre, change means moving to a new country, not altering your government by staying put.

In the 1990s, the EU tended to view itself as a unique post-modern empire surrounded by countries desperate to join. Like other empires before, it promoted law, peace and trade. An unwillingness (or inability) to define its final borders was a key characteristic of the European project. However, the refugee crisis did not simply force European elites to define where the limits of the union were, but also to adjust their vision of “open borders” to the reality of a world where migration is the new revolution. If a decade ago, Europeans were preoccupied by how to transform their neighbours, the major concern today is to resist countries such as Russia or Turkey transforming the EU.

The refugee crisis also signalled the return of an East-West divide in Europe. In the aftermath of the influx of families escaping the horrors of the conflict in Syria and the postwar chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan, the post-communist countries of eastern Europe refused to take any refugees, and blamed Brussels and Germany for attempting to destroy their national identities. The defence of a Christian Europe of sovereign nations became the cause of central European governments. In the words of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who in the 1990s was one of the symbols of the liberal revolution: “Twenty-seven years ago here in central Europe, we believed that Europe was our future; today we feel that we are the future of Europe.”

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How has the EU succeeded today in recovering its appeal, while failing singularly to solve any of the crises that threaten to destroy it?  What is the source of the new, more optimistic mood in Europe?

The popular short answer is: Emmanuel Macron. His decisive victories in France – first in the presidential election in May and then in parliamentary elections in June – on a proudly pro-European platform have led many to believe that, rather than disintegration, further integration may now be possible. His victory was not a manifestation of some structural trend, but a reminder of the importance of leadership. It was a demonstration that political outcomes for most of Europe’s leaders are most often determined by talent, ambition and good luck.

After all, it was not some mythical pro-European majority or abstract liberal centrism that won the elections in France. Rather, it was a 39-year-old man who dared to jump head first into the political fray wen his chances of success were slim to non-existent. A man who decided to dream when others were in the mood to mourn, and who – contrary to the conventional wisdom among the establishment – recognised that the majority of people want change: not “no Europe” but a different Europe. Instead of distancing himself from the EU, Macron embraced it – albeit with a solemn promise to change Brussels. It was his success in engaging the anti-establishment sentiments of the public – along with the promise of an EU that protects – that defines the Macron effect. It is too early to know how long it will last, but it was certainly the French elections that instilled hope and self-confidence in Europe’s elites. Macron’s victory owes a lot to the fears and frustrations brought by Trump’s America and the reality of Brexit.

Just as they did in the 20th century, the US and Britain are on course to save Europe. Trump’s victory and the chaos of his presidency may have frightened many middle-class voters, but it has functioned as catnip for populist leaders. It was precisely the impulse of far-right parties in Europe to take a page out of the Trump playbook – the one that claims any moderation is a betrayal of the people – that was partially responsible for their disappointing results not only in France, but also the Netherlands. Trump’s victory emboldened far-right parties to move further away from the centre at the very moment when they had secured almost enough acceptability to win. Right-wing populists in Austria jettisoned their hard-won moderate image and adopted, once again, an angrier and more apocalyptic tone. In France, it was Marine Le Pen’s suicidal decision to ask for a referendum on the euro that stamped her defeat. It seems the post-Brexit uncertainty and confusion in the UK, and Trump’s frightening unpredictability, contributed to Europeans’ born-again sympathy for the EU.

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Since 2017, Britain has been transformed in almost unimaginable ways. It has become provincial, disoriented and unimportant. What once was the greatest empire in the history of the world has started to resemble a rebellious colony. The irony of the Brexit negotiations cannot be lost on any observer with a sense of history.

For most of the second half of the 20th century, Britain was negotiating the dissolution of its empire. It was dealing with young nations keen to have power in the hands of their citizens, which at the same time were interested in transition periods when it came to trade. Britain was careful to negotiate the rights of its citizens remaining in the newly independent countries. As a whole, these were very asymmetrical negotiations. London’s advantage was determined by the higher quality of its bureaucracy and by its experience in dealing with trade issues. Also, as a rule, Britain had a consolidated position while its negotiating partners were internally divided and blinded by wishful thinking. In the Brexit negotiations, London has found itself in the position of its former colonies. It is impatient to get out of the European empire but it has to pay a high economic price for its “liberation”. It does not have enough experts trained to conduct successful trade talks and, unsurprisingly, Brussels is often as nasty and humiliating in negotiating with Britain as London was to its colonies.

In a paradoxical way, Germany’s crisis of self-confidence has also contributed to the new enthusiasm for the EU. It has become clear that Germany is neither as powerful in Europe as many feared nor as stable as many believed. For a long time, Germans have enjoyed a long holiday from history. While other European societies were torn apart by anxiety and anger, in Germany, most citizens were satisfied with their economic situation. Politicians and even the mainstream media were trusted and, as a result, Germany insisted on maintaining the status quo and was deaf to the problems of others.

Germany differed from its European partners the way a romantic comedy differs from a horror movie. But the parliamentary elections of November 2017 showed that the holiday was over. Germany is part of Europe’s new normal. It was the influx of refugees in 2015 – and the cultural and demographic panic this stirred – that put an end to German stability. The East-West divide is not simply between Germany and its post-communist neighbours, but across the Continent – and
even within Germany itself.

In Germany’s eastern states, those areas of the former communist republic, where there are far fewer settled refugees than in other parts of the country, the far-right Alternative for Germany achieved its best  ever results. And while on the surface, the East-West divide may be about migration, in reality the refugee crisis has made visible the deeply rooted resentment among former East Germans over the legacy of the fall of communism. It was the vote of the East Germans, more than anything else, that forced Berlin to understand that the East’s alienation from the European project is rooted not so much in the fear of foreigners who want to come, but in the trauma of Germans who have left. It is the delayed reaction to millions of eastern Europeans emigrating to the West in the past 25 years.

In East Germany, the population fell by around 15 per cent between 1990 and 2015. The mass migration from post-communist Europe to the West not only impaired economic competitiveness and political development, but also made those who decided to stay at home feel like losers. Those with roots have grown resentful of those with legs. It was the people in the most depopulated areas of Europe who voted most enthusiastically for populists.

The rise of Macron’s France has reassured some of Germany’s critics in central and southern Europe that not all decisions will be taken in Berlin. Meanwhile, the rise of the German far right has challenged its citizens’ illusion that they were the exception when it came to the European crisis. But though it was the Macron moment that changed the mood in Europe, it was the interplay between different crises that created the structural preconditions for the EU’s unexpected comeback. By allowing flexibility on budget deficit rules for countries which spend money on refugees (what constitutes such spending is to be negotiated between Brussels and member states), Europeans found a way to inject flexibility into the eurozone – mostly in Greece and Italy – without the need for formal rule changes.

While the refugee crisis united central Europeans and is mostly responsible for their growing opposition to Brussels, it was the Russia-Ukraine conflict that divided countries such as Poland and Hungary. This limited the space for joint actions against Brussels, and at the same time made it impossible for Hungary to use its veto against sanctions on Russia for fear of upsetting a delicate alliance with Poland. In short, that the EU is facing not one but many crises has brought to life different divisions and coalitions, opening room for manoeuvre. It has introduced the critical flexibility that the union so needed in order to rebalance itself.

The crises have also forced European societies to become more interested in one other. Germans became experts in the Greek economy; Poles and Hungarians took an interest in Berlin’s asylum policies. And western Europeans, for the first time since 1989, have started tuning in to what is really going on in central Europe. In 2016, it was fashionable to imagine the future of the EU while drawing historical parallels with the last days of the Habsburg empire. But at the start of 2018, understanding why this empire collapsed in 1918 appears less important than grasping why it didn’t disintegrate earlier – in 1848, 1867 or any number of other turbulent years. It is not 1918 in the EU any more than it is the 1930s. If the union is going to disintegrate any time soon, it will not be the outcome of historical necessity, but rather because of some sort of accident. For now, Europeans have reason to hope that “resilience” will be the word of 2018. 

Ivan Krastev is a political scientist, a contributing writer for the “New York Times”, and the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. His most recent book is “After Europe”

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration