Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
It’s time to sound the alarm. Seven decades after the end of the Second World War on European soil, the Europe we have built since then is under attack.
As the cathedral of Notre Dame burned, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National was polling neck and neck with Emmanuel Macron’s movement for what he calls a “European renaissance.” A right-wing populist party called the Finns, formerly the True Finns (to distinguish them from “false” Finns of different colour or religion), garnered almost as many votes as Finland’s Social Democrats in last month’s general election. In Britain, the European election vote this week can be seen as another referendum on Brexit, but the underlying struggle is the same as that of our fellow Europeans. Brexit Party Leader Nigel Farage is a Le Pen in Wellington boots, a True Finn in a Barbour jacket. And Prime Minister Theresa May’s long-heralded departure is just another chapter in a very European story of nationalist populists radicalizing the agenda of mainstream conservatives.
Meanwhile, to mark the 30th anniversary of the velvet revolutions of 1989, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has denounced a charter of LGBTQ rights as an attack on children. In Germany, the Alternative fur Deutschland successfully deploys a volkisch rhetoric we thought vanquished for good, although now it scapegoats Muslims instead of Jews. Viktor Orban, the young revolutionary hero of 1989 turned neo-authoritarian, has effectively demolished liberal democracy in Hungary, using anti-Semitic attacks on the billionaire George Soros and generous subsidies from the EU. Mr. Orban has summed the situation up like this: “Thirty years ago, we thought Europe was our future. Today, we believe we are Europe’s future.”
Italy’s Matteo Salvini agrees, so much so that earlier this month he hosted a European election rally of Europe’s right-wing populist parties in Milan. In the European elections that started on Thursday and end this Sunday, new parties and old ghosts compete for the hearts of voters across 28 countries. To be sure, the spectacle of a once-great country reducing itself to a global laughing stock in a tragic farce called Brexit has silenced all talk of Hungexit, Polexit or Italexit. But what Mr. Orban and his ilk intend is actually more dangerous. They propose to dismantle Europe from within, returning to an ill-defined but obviously much looser “Europe of nations.”
Wherever one looks, old and new rifts appear: between northern and southern Europe, catalyzed by the euro zone crisis; between West and East, reviving the old stereotypes of intra-European orientalism (civilized West, barbaric East); between Catalonia and the rest of Spain; between two halves of each European society; and even between France and Germany.
For anyone who takes a longer view, these mounting signs of European disintegration should not be a surprise. Isn’t this a pattern familiar from European history? In the 17th century, the horrendously destructive 30 Years’ War was concluded by the peace of Westphalia. At the turn of the 18th to the 19th, the continent was torn apart by two decades of Napoleonic wars, then stitched together in another pattern by the Congress of Vienna. The First World War was followed by the Versailles peace. Each time, the new postwar European order lasts a while – sometimes shorter, sometimes longer – but gradually frays at the edges, with tectonic tensions building up under the surface, until it finally breaks apart in a new time of troubles. No European settlement, order, empire, commonwealth, res publica, Reich, concert, entente, axis, alliance, coalition or union lasts for ever.
Set against that historical measuring rod, our Europe has done pretty well: It is 74 years old this week, if we date its birth to the end of the Second World War in Europe. It owes this longevity to the miraculously non-violent collapse in 1989-91 of a nuclear-armed Russian empire that had occupied half the continent. Only in former Yugoslavia, and more recently in Ukraine, have we witnessed what more normally follows the fall of empires: bloody strife. Otherwise, what happened after the end of the Cold War was a peaceful enlargement and deepening of the existing, post-1945 Western European order. Yet, maybe now the muse of history is shouting, like some grim boatman from the shore, “Come in, No. 45, your time is up!”
In one respect, however, this time is different. For centuries, Europe kept tearing itself apart, then putting itself together again, but all the while exploiting, colonizing and bossing around other parts of the world. Today, Europe struggles to remain a subject rather than becoming merely an object of world politics – with Beijing hungry to shape a Chinese century, a revanchist Russia, Donald Trump’s unilateralist United States, and climate change threatening to overwhelm us all. Both Russia and China merrily divide and rule across our continent, using economic power to pick off weaker European states and disinformation to set nation against nation. In the 19th century, European powers engaged in what was called the scramble for Africa; in the 21st, outside powers engage in a scramble for Europe.
Of course, Europe means many different things. It is a continent with ill-defined borders, a shared culture and history, a contested set of values, a complex web of institutions and, not least, hundreds of millions of people, all with their own individual Europes. Nationalists such as Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Orban insist they just want a different kind of Europe. Tell me your Europe and I will tell you who you are. But the central institution of the post-1945 project of Europeans working closely together is the European Union, and its future is now in question. None of this radicalization and disintegration is inevitable. But to avert it, we have to understand how we got here, and why this Europe, with all its faults, is still worth defending.
It is 1942. In a tram rattling through Nazi-occupied Warsaw sits an emaciated, half-starved 10-year-old boy. His name is Bronek. He is wearing four sweaters, yet still he shivers despite the August heat. Everyone looks at him curiously. Everyone, he is sure, sees that he is a Jewish kid who has slipped out of the ghetto through a hole in the wall. Luckily, no one denounces him, and one Polish passenger warns him to watch out for a German sitting in the section marked “Nur fur Deutsche.” And so Bronek survives, while his father is murdered in a Nazi extermination camp and his brother sent to Bergen-Belsen.
Sixty years on, Bronek walked with me down one of the long corridors of the Parliament of a now-independent Poland. Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks, turned to me, stroked his beard and said with quiet passion: “You know, for me, Europe is something like a Platonic essence.”
In the life of Prof. Bronislaw Geremek – Bronek, to me – you have the essential story of how, and why, Europe came to be what it is today. Having escaped the horrors of the ghetto (“the world burned before my eyes”), along with his mother, he was brought up by a Polish Catholic stepfather, served as an altar boy and was taught by an inspiring priest in the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So he had also, in his bones, Europe’s deep and defining Christian heritage. Then, at the age of 18, he joined the Communist Party, believing it would build a better world. Eighteen years later, stripped of his last illusions by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he resigned from that same party in protest and returned to his professional life as a medieval historian. But politics somehow would not let him go.
I first encountered him during a historic occupation strike in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in August, 1980, when the leader of the striking workers, Lech Walesa, asked Prof. Geremek to become an adviser to the protest movement that would soon be christened Solidarity. Over the subsequent decade, I would visit him, whenever I got the chance, in his small apartment in Warsaw’s Old Town, a neighbourhood which had been razed to the ground by the Nazis, then rebuilt stone upon stone by the Poles. As he puffed away at his professorial pipe, he shared with me his pellucid analysis of the decline of the Soviet empire, even as he and his comrades in Solidarity helped turn that decline into fall. For in 1989, he was the intellectual architect of the round-table talks that were the key to Poland’s negotiated transition from communism to democracy, and Poland was the icebreaker for the rest of central Europe.
Ten years on, he was the foreign minister who signed the treaty by which Poland became a member of NATO. When I visited him in the Foreign Ministry, I spotted on his mantelpiece a bottle of a Czech vodka called Stalin’s Tears. “You must have it!” he exclaimed. “A Polish foreign minister cannot keep Stalin in his office!” And so that bottle of Stalin’s Tears stands on my mantelpiece in Oxford as I write. In memory of Bronek, I will never drink it.
Having been instrumental in steering his beloved country into the European Union, he subsequently became a member of the European Parliament, that same Parliament to which we are electing new representatives this month. Tragically, but in a way symbolically, he died in a car accident on the way to Brussels.
Bronek’s story is unique, but the basic form of his Europeanism is typical of three generations of Europe-builders who made our continent what it is today. When you look at how the argument for European integration was advanced in various countries, from the 1940s to the 1990s, each national story seems at first glance very different. But dig a bit deeper and you find the same underlying thought: “We have been in a bad place, we want to be in a better one and that better place is called Europe.”
Many and diverse were the nightmares from which these countries were trying to awake. For Germany, it was the shame and disgrace of the criminal regime that murdered Bronek’s father. For France, it was the humiliation of defeat and occupation; for Britain, relative political and economic decline; for Spain, a fascist dictatorship; for Poland, a communist one. Europe had no shortage of nightmares. But for all of them, the shape of the pro-European argument was the same. It was an elongated, exuberant pencilled tick: a steep descent, a turn and then an upward line ascending to a better future. A future called Europe.
Personal memories of bad times were a driving force for three distinctive generations. Many of the founding fathers of what is now the European Union were what one might call 14ers, still vividly recalling the horrors of the First World War. Then came the 39ers such as Bronek, indelibly shaped by traumas of war, gulag, occupation and Holocaust. Finally, there was a third cohort, the 68ers, revolting against the war-scarred generation of their parents, yet many of them also having experience of dictatorships in southern and Eastern Europe.
The trouble starts when you have arrived in the promised land. Now, for the first time, we have a generation of Europeans – let’s call them the 89ers – most of whom have known nothing but a Europe of closely connected liberal democracies.
It would be a parody of middle-aged condescension to say, “These young people don’t know how lucky they are!” After all, younger voters are often more pro-European than older ones. But it would not be wrong to say that many 89ers who have grown up in this relatively whole and free continent do not see Europe as a great cause, the way 39ers and 68ers did.
Why be passionate about something that already exists? Unless they have grown up in the former Yugoslavia or Ukraine, they are unlikely to have much direct personal experience of just how quickly things can unravel, back to European barbarism. By contrast, many of them do know from bitter experience how life got worse after the financial crisis of 2008.
On the walls of Al-Andalus, a tapas bar in Oxford, depictions of flamenco dancers and bullfights embrace cliché without shame. Here, when I first met him in 2015, Julio – dark-haired, lean and intense – worked as a waiter. But serving tourists in a tapas bar in England was not what he expected to be doing with his life. He had just finished a master’s degree in European studies at Complutense University in Madrid. It was the euro zone crisis – which, at its height, made one in every two young Spaniards unemployed – that reduced him to this. Looking back, Julio describes his feelings when he had to make this move abroad: “Sadness, impotence, solitude.”
Across the continent there are many thousands of Julios. For them, the tick line has been inverted: It started by going steadily up, but then turned sharply downward after 2008. Ten years ago, you and your country were in a better place. Now you are in in a worse one, and that is because Europe has not delivered on its promises.
Here is the cunning of history: The seeds of triumph are sown in the moment of greatest disaster, in 1939, but the seeds of crisis are sown in the moment of triumph, in 1989. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that many of the problems haunting Europe today have their origins in the apparently triumphant transition after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The year 1989 opened the door to an unprecedented era of globalized, financialized capitalism. While this facilitated great material progress for a new middle-class in Asia, in the west it generated levels of economic inequality not seen since the early 20th century. A divide also opened up between those with higher education and international experience, and those in the less fortunate other halves of European societies. The latter felt an inequality of attention and respect from the former. Barriers to freedom of movement between European countries were eliminated while little thought was given to what Europe would do if large numbers of people wanted to enter through the outer frontier of the Schengen Area.
When the global financial crisis hit, it exposed all the inherent flaws of a halfway-house euro zone. Not only did the euro zone crisis drive Julio to that dreary tapas bar and people in Greece to desperate hardship, it kickstarted a new wave of radical and populist politics.
Populists blame the sufferings of “the people” on remote, technocratic, liberal elites. Europe – or, more accurately, “Europe” – is particularly vulnerable to this attack. For most officials in Brussels are quite remote, quite technocratic and quite liberal. Although their remuneration is peanuts compared to that of the bankers who nearly crashed the globalized capitalist system, EU leaders, parliamentarians and officials are very well paid. Watching them jump out of a chauffeur-driven BMW to deliver another smooth, visionary speech about the future of Europe, before jumping back into the BMW to be swept off to another nice lunch, it is not surprising that many less privileged Europeans say: “Well, they would praise Europe, wouldn’t they?”
Since its inception, the European project has had a future-oriented, teleological rhetoric, all about what will come to pass one fine day, as we reach some ideal finalité européenne. These habits die hard. Driving through Hannover recently, I saw a Green Party poster for the European elections that declared, “Europe is not perfect – but it’s a damned good start.”
Pause to think for a moment, and you realize how odd this is. After all, we don’t say “Britain is not perfect, but it’s a damned good start.” Nor do most 74-year-olds say “my life is not perfect, but it’s a good start.” The European Union today, like France, Britain or Canada, is a mature political entity, which does not need to derive its legitimacy from some utopian future.
There is now a realistic, even conservative (small-c) argument for maintaining what has already been built – which, of course, necessarily also means reforming it. If we merely preserved for the next 30 years today’s EU, at its current levels of freedom, prosperity, security and co-operation, that would already be an astonishing achievement.
In a long historical perspective, this is the best Europe we have ever had. I challenge you to point to a better one, for the majority of the continent’s countries and individual people. Most Europeans live in liberal democracies that are committed to resolving their differences by all-night meetings in Brussels, not unilateral action, let alone armed force. This European Union may be short on mystique, on emotional appeal, but it is not lacking that entirely. The heart can lift to see European flags fluttering beside national ones, and certainly to the strains of the European anthem, Beethoven’s setting of the Ode to Joy.
For everyone who is a citizen of an EU member state, this is a continent where you can wake up on a Friday morning, decide to take a budget airline flight to the other end of the continent, meet someone you like, settle down to study, work and live there, all the time enjoying the rights of a European citizen in one and the same legal, economic and political community. All this you appreciate most, like health, when you are about to lose it. Small wonder that marchers at the huge pro-European demonstration in London on 23 March this year wore T-shirts proclaiming “I am a citizen of Europe.”
So here’s the deepest challenge of this moment: Do we really need to lose it all in order to find it again? Born in the depths of European barbarism more than 70 years ago, tipped towards crisis by a hubris born of that liberal triumph 30 years ago, does this project of a better Europe really need to descend all the way down to barbarism again before people mobilize to bring it back up?
As personal memories such as those which inspired the European passion of Bronislaw Geremek fade away, the question is whether collective memory, cultivated by historians, journalists, statespeople and filmmakers, can enable us to learn the lessons of the past without going through it all again ourselves.