Krastev: Europe has to reinvent a country taking care of its citizen

Europe has to reinvent a country taking care of its citizen

Michał Sutowski: How deep, in your opinion, is the current crisis of the European Union? You recently advanced the thesis that the EU is in the similar position as the Balkans were at the early 90s.

Ivan Krastev*: My thesis was in fact somewhat provocative, but for a certain purpose. So people are prone to take the European Union as a certainty – we are not even able to imagine that the European Union could fall apart and collapse. And the taking the EU for granted is just what I consider groundless. This is a very delicate project. It will last, as long as there are people interested in supporting it. I claim that there were four very important factors, which caused the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Are they present also today?

Yes. The first factor is geopolitical. Yugoslavia simply couldn’t have broken up during the Cold War, because neither the Soviets nor the Americans could have allowed this. In regard to the European Union, by a strange coincidence, it became one of the main beneficiaries from a few decades of the American hegemony. It was very favourable for two reasons. Firstly, it reduced, in great measure, the security costs related to the EU’s enlargement. Many other serious problems, which needed to be overcome while expanding Europe to countries like Poland, were successfully solved because the United States was the only superpower left.

Secondly the European Union was in the comfortable position, not only to benefit from the US hegemony, but also to criticize it – as we could clearly see in the attitude of a few European countries to the Americans’ intervention in Iraq. That was an attitude comparable with the position of the reformists in communistic parties in the 80s. People liked them when the Communists were still in power. The society saw in them reformers, and the party communists. But when the system fell, the society came to perceive them as communists and the party as reformers, so…

… so simply speaking, they completely fell from power?

Precisely. The second factor threatening the EU has an ideological character. Just as the former Yugoslavia, the EU was not only a project of some type of global ideology. Like Yugoslavia’s communism, which was assumed to be a kind of third way and because of that seemed attractive for unengaged counties, Europe believed in its universalism, for example, that its model of the welfare state was the way to the future. Even in the 90s, we expected the world would follow the European route within 2-3 decades. Yet after the latest financial crisis the European Union lost self-confidence. It doesn’t mean that the American or Chinese model started to dominate, but we just lost faith in our own model. As a result of this change – and also some intellectual trends – all we considered universal in our model, now seems like an exception.

The third matter is a generation problem. Simply speaking, Yugoslavia broke up because, among other things, the generation of national founders went away, the partisans, whose personal experience made them treat Yugoslavia as a peace project.

Tony Judt, in his Postwar, pointed out something similar in reference to Western Europe.

Yes. He emphasized something, in my opinion, extremely important, that the legitimisation of the European project was related, to a certain degree, to Europe’s post-war experience. And this was the experience of failure. We cannot forget that the European Union was created by defeated countries. Germany was defeated. France was defeated. The only country, which essentially didn’t feel defeated, I mean the United Kingdom, joined the European communities many years after they were created. Today we deal with the generation, whose mentality is much more European, but which cares less about the European Union, because it lacks the memory of the war and defeat.

There is also forth analogy with the Balkans. In Yugoslavia, particularly in the 70s, the time when the crisis of this project was arising, a part of the party’s leadership strongly believed that the problem lay on the side of the nationalistic elites in the republics and that it was enough to use democratic tools – proposing a referendum to these or other Yugoslavian nations – to legitimise the project. They lived under the illusion, that some elites were anti-Yugoslavian, but people remained pro-Yugoslavian. In the referendum on the European constitution in France and Holland the similar thinking that people would declare for the constitution turned out to be wrong. When a nation votes, it votes for many reasons. But obviously people didn’t vote for the constitution, because they knew nothing about it. The objection became the voice of distrust against the elites.

Then we mustn’t take the European Union for granted, something given?

We must rethink the last 20 years. The way we were telling the history of the last two decades, was very teleological. We had the transformation, the enlargements, as if there was only this one project of the EU’s enlargement. In fact we talk about a much more complicated reality.

Firstly, four various projects have been developing in Europe for the last 20 years. One of them is obviously the European Union – the enlargement, which has taken place till today, not only up to 1992. The second one is the appearance of post-imperialistic Russia which has never been a non-imperialistic country in its whole history and that is why this idea of new statehood is equally sensitive, unique and unthinkable for them, as the EU is for us. In addition we have post-Kemal Turkey, where the old country’s transformation involved the development of unpredictable parties and the completely new identity policy, often very radical. We also have the classical process of nations forming in many countries, which didn’t exist before 1989. In places like Ukraine or Belarus, it is visible how difficult these processes are.

So we have four large identity projects developing in Europe. They are all new and sensitive – none of them can be taken as a certainty. All of them could collapse. In this connection the greatest challenge, in my opinion, is to keep these projects supporting each other, not being a threat to each other. On the existing level of correlations, not only the strength of the neighbours threatens Europe, but also their weakness.

Like Russia being deep in anarchy?

I don’t know what is worse – strong and aggressive Russia or weak Russia, which cannot take care of its infrastructure or keep peace between ethnic groups. And we fear the masses of Russian emigrants leaving for the European Union more than the Russian army. It is the main reason for my belief that there is something wrong with the current discourse on the European Union. When we talk about serious matters, we always talk about institutions and always take the EU for granted.

In the article written with Mark Leonard, you propose a controversial thesis suggesting an alliance of the European Union, Turkey and Russia.

There are two approaches to a given subject. The first one follows the belief that you know the answer and then you try to push it through. The second one consists in taking some controversial hypothesis to reconsider a situation. Our study leans towards the second approach. We want to say that the last 20 years need to be thought over. Secondly we have to give up the illusion there is only one proper course for the European Union to work. Thirdly we have to try to look at Russia and Turkey as projects, being aware of their fragility, and see how our new European architecture may look. Meanwhile, I am convinced we still sit within the old debates. Everyone discusses how the world changed after World War II …

Instead of the changes after 1989? How the world changed?

I believe that Europe’s problem, as a continent, is our marginalisation. We are marginalised, and Russia even more that we are. We face the new world, which will be multipolar, and have no guarantees the European Union will be one of its poles. To achieve it, the EU must rethink the European order, in the first instance because we aren’t a classic national country and that makes our functioning more difficult, in particular in the case of anarchy. Anarchy is a state, into which everything may descent. As you know our article was the subject of severe criticism. I would say it divided the readers into two groups of those who dislike it and those who hate it, but it makes people take a stand inspiring the debate.

You mentioned that our societies are, paradoxically, more European then before, but at the same time they support the EU project less. Is it then a matter of lack of unity and great differences between the nations, or just an inability to articulate European unity?

We lost the great part of our story and if you ask people what the matter is with the European Union, they won’t know what to say. Partly it results from the fact that many of the project’s goals were achieved, for example the welfare state…

Now some are trying to disassemble it.

Yes, but it doesn’t have the inspiring power anymore; it’s not the horizon of our future. Among other things, this is why the European narrative concerns mostly the defence of status quo. That won’t be easy because by a strange coincidence the greatest advantages of the European community are also its greatest disadvantages. The welfare state was an element of Europe’s social identity, but now is under pressure; as, for instance, due to the demographic progress it’s hard to keep the solidarity level in redistribution. Obviously further immigration can be enabled, but our democracy doesn’t let it happen, as the people of most nations want to retain their cultural identity and react excessively against immigrants. This is Americanisation for them.

In a strange way we are assaulted by two forms of Americanisation. On the one hand there is the Americanisation of economy, which disassembles the welfare state, but as a result of this process some immigrants are kept outside. On the other hand there is the Americanisation of society coming out of the societies being more open to immigrants to maintain the welfare state. However here the problem of solidarity appears, as much research indicates that people are less willing to share with others, who don’t belong to their cultural or religious background. So we have an identity crisis.

Is it a matter of cultural or economical anxiety?

Europe’s middle class of today is afraid that the idea of the middle class itself is being dissembled. Firstly the gap between rich and poor is expanding and the middle class is growing poorer. Some people may upgrade to the upper class, but others may join the defeated. Secondly the national identities are much more difficult to maintain in the European Union than before, which doesn’t mean we don’t assert any.

Belgium is a very interesting case, however paradoxical. The Europe of the 90s imagined itself on the basis of Belgium’s model and tried to transfer it to Eastern Europe or places like the Balkans. We told the Balkans, ‘listen, you are a part of our history’. We said to Macedonia, ‘you will be like Belgium’. Now Belgium may split up, so what is the story we keep telling the peripheries? I think this type of uncertainty is very problematic in our own model – what should be done, protected or sacrificed? This is extremely hard.

We are also senescent people and we look ahead just like insurance companies, focused on risk minimisation. It is not about ambition anymore, or changing the world to make it look more like ours.

Is all we want a peaceful retirement?

The consensus exists on avoiding any choices as long as possible. I think this is the most serious European disease today. People with radical views want to keep the status quo just like the people of the establishment want to keep the establishment’s status quo.

Do you see any possibility to define a wider prospect for Europe than only this desperate defence of the status quo, our Crystal Palace?

It is hard to persuade people to give up something they like. How can we explain to them, using just numbers and facts that, it cannot be strengthened any longer? They won’t believe. Particularly after the disassembly of the welfare state, as the middle class, which used to be so important for society, will be the hardest hit.

Where do I see a chance? The European Union’s societies, due to their age and unique historical experience, have after all a greater ability for self-reflection than most other societies. The Indians or Chineses are slightly blinded with their recent successes. I believe the European Union will be the first to start thinking about a society, whose demographic structure will be completely different. A society where the definition of just order will be based on the access to health services rather than to work.

So do you mean the society determined by the question of whether the needy are included in the system, or excluded from it?

Yes, but it concerns the elderly the most. We need to imagine a society, where 5-6% of people are over 80 years old. The situation is completely different from what we know. Before the youth was a problem, so it was all about the commonly accessible education. Now social justice will depend on the health and the assurance of reasonable life to people in their old age.
How will the relations between generations look? I don’t talk only about money transfers, but about a different idea of solidarity itself. Either we will reinvest in the model of extended, multi-generation families, or we will have to find some place in a country for those immigrant nannies. Europe has to reinvent a country taking care of its citizens.

Demography is still a problem rather than a solution. Has Europe any trumps? Can we make up for our many shortcomings thanks to, for example, innovations?

It is not so simple. I see at least three alarming factors in this area. First of all, following the latest research of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) the European societies are not doing all right. There is something wrong with our education systems, as we are not competitive anymore. Secondly both the Europeans and the Americans believed that whatever happened in the world, we would be running research and financial services, while the rest of the world would take care of the ‘real’ production. This is how we imagined it 10 years ago. But today it seems companies move their research and development departments where production is located. The artificial division into the production of knowledge and the production of goods will be hard to maintain. This way we can easily lose our research departments, if we don’t produce anymore. So the deindustrialisation is not the answer. The trouble is that reindustrialisation in turn is not easy, taking into consideration the fact that people expect high wages. From this point of view, Germany is an important exception, which still maintains its production base.
There is also a third matter. Innovations will become less and less profitable, as currently it’s more difficult to reserve intellectual property and the technology transfer is fast. The Chineses have a term for this
– ‘reinovation’, which essentially means technology mining from others and an attempt to adapt it on your own ground. Actually I see nothing wrong in that, as many developed countries weren’t too rigorist with regard to intellectual rights in the early stage of their development.

Is there any difference then between innovations and imitations? Doesn’t the high innovation level, like in Finland, actually give advantages over others? It enables the welfare state to be maintained in Scandinavia.

I will give you an example to illustrate it. Let’s say there is a serious innovation in medicine and on the basis of that you offer some product. You usually have a monopoly for a few years so the investment can pay off, often with great gain. But today it is difficult to hold a monopoly, and a turn to technology doesn’t guarantee such advantage as in the past. Moreover we are still deeply convinced we have the monopoly on innovations. It’s said that the Asians can manage well, but are not innovative and their society is really scared of innovations. So they can have good technician skills like in China, but won’t have our Silicon Valley, because we are creative and innovative, and so on. This is true to some extent. However let’s take the case of Singapore. In Singapore they haven’t got their own Silicon Valley, but they simply buy ours! Offering great opportunities they ‘buy’ our best scientists, who were educated somewhere else. They are going to create in Singapore a university and hospital for all Asia. This is a very interesting specialisation.

What can we actually do?

The most important challenge for Europe is the matter of creating such a social structure, which would ensure people have just and affluent living conditions, but most probably in the situation of lower economic growth, as we won’t be stronger than others. Our society should also reconsider what ‘just’ means now. I expect some serious tensions related to the idea of meritocratic society, as it was presented before. Let’s take someone like Rawls. Rawls would tell us that it is better to be a loser in a just society than a loser in a unjust society. I am not sure if this is correct from the psychological point of view. In a just society you have nobody to blame…

Every man is the smith of his own fortune, his own failure…

don’t think people are ready for this. It was easier to be a loser in communist society, where…

… you could assign the blame to some external factors…

… instead of bearing the blame yourself. The other interesting matter is a very strange development in the last 20 years. We have the heyday of global meritocracies, but also the decline of the middle class society. Essentially we deal with egalitarianism, but on the level of some cultural competences rather than incomes. For increasing inequalities, people are to be compensated by the fact that their opinions are taken seriously, even if they are completely ignorant. By the way, the Internet is a great tool of this type of egalitarianism. Everyone can have a blog and at least the illusion of speaking to the whole world. As we know, most bloggers do not speak to anybody, but they have this illusion that their opinion is important like any other.

In my opinion, the goal used to be slightly different. The Social-Democrats didn’t care about the workers’ tastes, but their interests. To the greater degree they tried to increase their salaries, but in the matter of educating them at the same time about the middle class values.

Now on the contrary, people are allowed to keep their values, on condition that they don’t question the amount of money they get. From this point of view the whole society changed. For me, the Social Democrats are real conservative parties, even more conservative than the Christian Democrats…

The best example is the exceptionally beautiful, emotional and deep book, titled ‘Ill fares the land’, by Tony Judt, who died lately but was one of the most talented intellectuals of his generation. The most intriguing thing is that this is a conservatism manifesto. This is a left-wing book about the world that disappeared, but which we want to remember. I think Tony writes about the social-democratic world in the same way as Joseph de Maistre described ancien regime – as something beautiful, but which no longer exists. Today the social democracy is a problem. What does it mean to be a social democrat? It seems like a very difficult question to me.

You were saying about the recompense for increasing economic inequities, the abilities to express individual objections, or simply opinions. Wouldn’t it be a good position for the Social Democracy to stand for the better and more just redistribution of cultural competences? The current system of education doesn’t ensure it, but rather replicates class differences and inequities. But the best instrument today, and probably the only instrument of real articulation of someone’s opinion or interest, is cultural competence. If one doesn’t have them, it is harder to obtain a binding voice.

This is extremely important. The supporters of the so-called Third Way were following the same logic. They believed that common access to education would make modern society more just. Malcolm Gladwell pointed out problems related to this approach in his book, ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’. There is a case study on what determines the differences in achievements of students from the middle class and the working class. Simply speaking the factor determining them was a way they were spending holidays. The difference of their school results wasn’t so distinct. But in summer, families from the middle class were usually encouraging kids to further learning, reading and went on holidays… while families from the working class were leaving kids on the streets. When they came back to school, this hidden disadvantage was strengthened. In a strange way the educational utopia, which is a core of meritocratic society, as meritocracy is based on education, caused rather an upgrade of the middle class than, for example, making the working class and poverty close to immigrants.

So it intensifies differences rather than eliminates them?

Yes, the problem of education will be very essential, not only in the social or economic range. It is a matter of surviving for immigrants, as they don’t know how their children will learn in a foreign language, coming from many different cultures. How should they be educated? It’s also the identity problem. I think that for the social democrats the primary question is not only ‘who do we represent?’ but also ‘what kind of society?’. Before they had the working class for good and for ill, they knew for whom they stood up and what reforms were needed. But now socialism is in a similar position, in which the Christian democracy found itself when the Church started to lose its influence. The social democrats ‘secularise’ themselves – they have no idea, which could bind them, and no trade unions, which played for them the same role as the Church for the Christian democrats.

What is left for the social democrats? Desperately protecting the status quo? Or protecting the society against the incidental power abuse?

I think that the fundamental matter now, not only for European society, is the question of how we can update the idea of the common good to make it is sensible for an ordinary man. Hence my doubts about people, who believe that the only thing we need is the distrust management. The very strong tradition exists (mainly American), which says the distrust against institutions and elites is good – the constitution itself is kind of institutionalised distrust. On the other hand you also need some amount of critical trust to make the society work. The trouble is that nobody really knows how to persuade people to trust the government and organisations. Formerly the answer was ‘through participation’, letting people participate and co-create the reality around themselves… But later came the epoch of discontent. Obviously I believe that the democratic form of governance is better prepared to cope with social discontent than the classic authoritarianism, but it’s still not enough. The form is the one thing, but we also lost methods of talking about justice. Have you lately heard anybody debating publicly about it, except academics?

Germany, inspired by of Sloterdijk, is debating, but the problem is that his understanding of justice means the welfare state disassembly and limited redistribution.

True, we have to deal here with the repeat of American debate on redistribution. The understanding of justice and solidarity is influenced by progressing segregation of political communities, ethos, living styles. We are more radically exposed to differences and less socially inclusive for the people, who are different to us, e.g. having different past or background.

Are we irretrievably losing the sense of solidarity with others?

Lynn Hunt, a historian of the French Revolution, claims that one of its causes was the 18th century sentimental novel. French society before the revolution was very hierarchical and mostly based on hierarchical solidarity. Not only did people live differently, but also died differently – e.g. the aristocracy mustn’t be tortured. Then these novels were published. An aristocrat read something like that and identified himself with love dilemmas of his servant. The idea of universal man emerged.

In my opinion we are just losing this idea. We talk a lot about rights and it’s good. However what we miss is the idea of empathy, the attempt to stand in such a position to look at ourselves with other people’s eyes. Besides, I believe this is the main foundation of the cultural revolution of traditional liberalism. Because the traditional liberalism is quite close to the idea of the psychological novel presenting many different points of view, but where in the end we are not sure which one is correct. People, who have read it, could experience this complex message, sent by Isaiah Berlin’s style of liberalism: we always sacrifice some values. This is not the choice between good and bad, but rather the choice between good and good. The difference between the classical type of liberalism and its current Hollywood’s version is illustrated well by the film Air Force One. The president of the United States is a hostage, threatened by terrorists, and at some point he has to decide if he should save his family or his country. This is a typical situation like from Isaiah Berlin – you should scarify some value, although both are important to you.

The president saved both the country and the family!

I think this is what our generation wanted. The most serious critique of liberal consensus, from environments like Politic Critique, touches on the fact, that it was expected to be the game where everyone wins. We pretended it’s true, and this is what made people very upset. The thing was not only that they were losing in actual fact, but rather that they were being told they were winning! The problem is not that there are the winners and losers, but rather a question of how we can limit the winners and redress the losers. Meanwhile we don’t even subject it to any debate, politicians don’t know how to talk about the winners and losers.

During Polish elections, Civic Platform’s slogan was: ‘better life for everyone’…

I guess the problem of ‘who should pay for this?’ will be kind of generational in nature – it won’t be only the matter of the poor and rich, as the very active older generation will constitute the majority of voters. On the other hand we see the very frustrated young generation, which can punish its society simply by leaving it. So to satisfy the elderly and keep the youth, it is not always the same policy.

The conservative socialists would say: let’s keep pensions and the welfare state. French students on the streets were supporting their grandparents…

They would rather be in the same position being old as their grandparents are. They were imagining themselves as pensioners. Once we had fathers coming out on the streets standing up for their children’s future. Now we have the youth on the streets struggling for the future of their pensions. This is a typical individualistic shift, as nowadays you don not expect anybody except yourself will stand up for your rights.


* Ivan Krastev – a Bulgarian politician scientist, philosopher, analyst, publicist and the Chief of Liberal Strategies Centre in Sofia. He is a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute for Security Studies in London. He is the editor in chief of Bulgarian edition of Foreign Policy and an editor of Europe’s World. He is a regular co-operative of, the Journal of Democracy, Prospect Magazine, Russia in Global Affairs and Pro&Contra. He was a dissident in communistic Bulgaria. In 2008 he was ranked at the 85th position of the Top 100 Public Intellectuals. His latest books are The Anti American Century , CEU Press (2007), Shifting Obsessions: Three Essays on the Politics of Anticorruption, CEU Press (2004).

Translated by Magdalena Szulim


Michał Sutowski
Political scientist, columnist, editor. Coordinator of the Institute for Advanced Studies. Translator from English and German. Editor of the political writings of Jacek Kuroń and Stanisław Brzozowski. In 2012, he studied at the Yale University as part of the Political Critique scholarship.

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