April 19th, 2018


My tweets


After Europe, Ivan Krastev

I've been blogging political book reviews this week, but don't worry, it will be back to the regular science fiction diet soon. Today and tomorrow I am reviewing two books by writers who I consider friends, both seriously concerned about the state of Europe and the EU, with different but compatible analyses.

Second paragraph of conclusion (after two main chapters) of After Europe, by Ivan Krastev:
For Europeans, the European Union was such a natural world. It is not anymore. The year 1917 was one that turned European history on its head. It started the great civil war in Europe that ended only in 1989. The year 2017 may end up being just as consequential. Pivotal elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany, and most likely Italy, may escalate the process of European disintegration. Greece may opt to leave the eurozone in 2017. Major terrorist attacks in a European capital, or armed conflict and a new wave of refugees on Europe's periphery, could easily bring the union to the edge of collapse. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have upended future predictions of Europe's survival—and not in Europe's favor. If the disintegration of the EU was only recently considered unthinkable, after Brexit it seems (in the eyes of many) almost inevitable. Europe has been shattered by the rise of populist parties across the continent, just as the migration crisis has transformed the nature of liberal democratic regimes.
This is the book that everyone is quoting in the Brussels bubble at the moment. Fortunately Ivan’s worst predictions about 2017 did not come to pass, but we are not out of the woods yet. He gave an updated version of his perspective at a conference I attended earlier this year, starting at 2:22:30 in this video. He combines deep intellectual rigour with a typical Bulgarian sense of humour; give it a watch:

There are a number of key elements here. Krastev believes that the EU is in serious crisis, and may even be on the point of disintegration (though he admits that that will only happen if France or Germany decides to pull the plug). His perspective is an Eastern European one, concerned that the migration crisis has critically weakened the the political left, the credibility of human rights issues, and the discourse of compassion and tolerance. This has had a negative impact on democracy; he looks at three other referendums that took place in 2016 to examine the paradoxes of the democratic process. He is full of good one-liners:
“The right to be governed wisely can contradict a citizen’s right to vote. This is what has always made liberals anxious about democracy.”

“The new populist majorities perceive elections not as an opportunity to choose between policy options but as a revolt against privileged minorities[.]”

“A decade ago, the British polling agency YouGov undertook a comparative study between a group of political junkies and a similar cohort of young people who actively participated in the Big Brother reality show. The distressing finding of the study was that British citizens felt better represented in the Big Brother house. It was easier for them to identify themselves with the characters and ideas being discussed. They found it more open, transparent, and representative of people like them. Reality show formats made them feel empowered in the way that democratic elections are supposed to make them feel but don’t.”

“What makes meritocrats so insufferable, especially in the minds of those who don’t come out on top in the socioeconomic competition, is less their academic credentials than their insistence that they have succeeded because they worked harder than others, were more qualified, and passed exams that others failed.”
It’s clear that the book is to a certain extent in dialogue with David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere, which I reviewed yesterday - the two quote each other, and their diagnoses are not so far apart. Yet I find Krastev much more palatable, I guess because he is sad rather than smug, and doesn’t rant inaccurately about the euro.

In the conclusion to the book, he somewhat pulls his punches, noting that if the EU can demonstrate enough flexibility to meet the challenges from within, disintegration is not inevitable.
Flexibility—not rigidity—is what may yet save Europe. While most observers ask how populism can be vanquished, in my view the more apposite question is how to respond to its venality. What will increase the likelihood of the European Union surviving is the spirit of compromise. Making room for conciliation should be the major priority of those who care for the union. The EU should not try to defeat its numerous enemies but try to exhaust them, along the way adopting some of their policies (including the demand for well-protected external borders) and even some of their attitudes (free trade is not necessarily a win-win game). Progress is linear only in bad history textbooks.
It’s a decently short book, only 120 pages, and well worth getting.