Ahead of the European elections in May, the EU is in the midst of its most radical crisis ever, warns Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev. He says the bloc needs more courage and less German risk aversion.
DW: Your last book has an astonishing title: "After Europe." Does that mean Europe no longer exists?
Ivan Krastev: The book expressed my disagreement with people who take the European Union for granted. I do not say the EU is going to disintegrate. But the EU we have known for the last 20 or 30 years is not going to be there anymore. Is this a pessimistic view? No, because the EU has been changing very much during the last decades. My argument is directed against those who are convinced that nothing can happen because the European Union is going to stay and the current crisis is a normal one. No, it's a more radical crisis than any other we have ever experienced before.
Many countries in Eastern Europe seem rather resentful towards the EU. Why?
I belong to the Eastern European generation of 1989. Until then, "Europe" meant "Western Europe." Thus, the utopia of 1989 was a utopia of normality: We wanted to be normal and normality means to live like Western Europeans. The transformation that took place was based on the idea that you should imitate the West. Some of the crises we currently see in Eastern Europe express a revolt against imitation. A part of the problem you see in Hungary or Poland is a return to tradition. It resembles the kind of resentment you see in the second generation of immigrants, which starts questioning its identity. This is the case in many Eastern European states.
On the other hand, Eastern Europeans are used to political changes.
Yes, this is very important. Imagine the utopia of communism in the 1930s and 40s: You're trying to build a society that never existed. This is totally abstract, a utopia that exists only in books. But this was exactly what explained its constancy.
Paradoxically, Eastern Europeans started to imitate existing societies after the end of communism — those of the West, that changed very much during the last 30 years. Imagine a conservative Pole: In 1985, he dreamed of Western Europe and said we, the Eastern Europeans, should be "normal." From his perspective, "normal" meant — unlike in communist countries — that the church is being respected. But then he discovers that this "West" he has been imitating is skeptical about the church — quite the opposite from what he believes to be "normal." In a strange way, Eastern Europe became the victim of an almost schizophrenic idea of normality. So the question is: Where can you find a utopia today?
What about people in Western Europe? Are they looking for a utopia, too?
Think about the "Gilets Jaunes" in France: They put on their yellow vests in order to be seen. From this point of view, you have a lot of people who basically do not feel represented in public life. They are convinced that the decisions made in Brussels do not reflect their real problems. In a certain way, the "yellow vests" represent all the people outside the major cities who think the governments and the European Commission don't understand them. These people don't fear the end of the world. But they fear the end of the month. Another group is what I call "the unheard." They're very visible and mostly young. Take the protesters against climate change. Their message is: Probably we are a minority, but we want to be heard because we need policies for our future in 30 years, not only in three years. And then you have the third group, the immigrants. Unlike the other groups, they do not want to be so visible. While the "yellow vests" are suffering because nobody sees them, the immigrants have the feeling that everybody is looking at them — while they only want to be left alone for a while. So you have three different ways of political wishful thinking.
Some Europeans seem to have lost all hope — especially in the era of Brexit...
I was very unhappy about the UK leaving the European Union, but now I have to ask: Can the European Union survive a possible return of the United Kingdom? This is not a rhetorical question, because the UK that could decide to come back would not be the same as the one that wanted to leave the EU. It is a very divided and resentful society. The humiliation Britain experienced cannot be taken out of the analysis. However, no major political party in the EU is currently advocating for leaving the EU or the euro. Thus, Brexit first destabilized and then stabilized the European Union on a certain level.
What about Germany? Could it lead the EU?
In Germany, the least guarded border is the one between mainstream political parties and the more extreme ones. People are moving in all directions: not just from the mainstream parties to the populist parties, but also the other way around. This level of confusion, this fear of the future also reflects the mentality of an aging society. Germany's way of thinking about the world resembles the perspective of retired people and pension funds. We enter a period in which Europe is probably going to do some risky things in order to succeed. Germany seems very stable and successful, but at the same time very risk averse. It remains to be seen whether this risk aversion offers Germany the leadership of the European Union.
Ivan Krastev is a political scientist, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.