While slightly more than a decade old, Jeremy Rifkin’s The European Dream reads today as a primary source for a discredited utopian movement. An American scholar with profound affection for the European Union, Rifkin wrote how, contra Reagan and Winthrop, the “old continent” of Europe, not the United States, now reigned as the shining “city on the hall.” Between generous welfare states, a healthier work-life balance, and rigorous environmental standards, the communal superiority of “The European Dream” over the rugged individualism of the U.S. model was uncontested.
While the United States retained narrow attachments to God, country, and hard military force, Europe’s cosmopolitan, secular, and pacifist zeitgeist previewed a new “global consciousness for a globalized world.” Other scholars, perhaps yearning for solace from the Bush presidency, offered similar praise. Consider other titles of the mid-2000s: T.R. Reid’s The United States of Europe, Mark Leonard’s Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, and Charles Kupchan’s The End of the American Era.
Such an eminent fin de histoire never reached Europe. Facing the eurozone’s internal contradictions, migration crises, populist uprisings, and a “lost generation” scarred by youth unemployment, Rifkin’s Europe resembles less Genesis’ Eden than its tower of Babel. In a journalistic tour de force, the conservative American writer James Kirchick’s The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Ages warns of a continent on the verge of losing its traditions of “liberal democracy, free markets, peaceful coexistence, and political pluralism.”
“Citing Orwell’s maxim that ‘he who controls the past, controls the future,’ Kirchick considers the power of historical memory in contributing to Europe’s crisis.”
Citing Orwell’s maxim that “he who controls the past, controls the future,” Kirchick considers the power of historical memory in contributing to Europe’s crisis. The memory of supposed innocence (Russia and Hungary) and actual guilt (Germany) are, in different ways, undermining the continent’s future. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire for an expansive sphere of influence rests in the supposed benevolence of the Soviet Union and tsarism (“We cannot allow anyone to impose guilt on us”). This flight from responsibility is propelled through various Kremlin policies, whether in the harassment of honest Soviet scholars, revised school curricula, or the rehabilitation of Stalin as “an occasionally overaggressive state-builder.”
Likewise, in Kirchick’s impressive coverage of a controversial, new Holocaust memorial in Budapest, Hungary, we recognize how Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government is intentionally avoiding recognition of Hungarian culpability and complicity in the Shoah. Constructions of historical innocence are essential to such leaders. A true reckoning with the past would forge a new patriotism self-critical and humble enough to resist illiberal temptations.
Postwar Germany can hardly be accused of seeking innocence. All can applaud alongside Kirchick the country’s “honest reckoning with its history.” But Vergangenheitsbewältigung—the “coming to terms with its past”—can be misused. In Kirchick’s reading, it can create a Germany too fearful of its own power, marred in an idealistic pacifism removed from dangerous, new global realities. If not properly understood and channeled, this historical guilt can devolve into an “aspiration to achieve peace to the exclusion of all other consideration—such as freedom, both for oneself and one’s neighbors.”
The End of Europe goes beyond well-covered stories in the American press to uncover more subtle threats to Europe. It documents the sympathy to Russia in much of Germany’s business elite and left, who desire a “middle course between West and East” modeled on Cold War Ostpolitik. This was best exemplified by former Chancellor Gerald Schröder as an employee for Gazprom, acting “as an enthusiastic advocate for the Kremlin” and German rapprochement with Russia. Schröder is hardly an outlier in his Social Democratic Party. Current German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has long agitated for the highly controversial Nord Stream II gas project and called recent NATO exercises in Poland “warmongering.” Kirchick clarified my own conversations with Romanian security writers alarmed by potential British and U.S. disengagement from NATO and continental security. In their eyes, historical inertia would favor an updated “Molotov-Ribbentrop pact” between Germany and Putin’s Russia, leaving Eastern Europe exposed.
Crossing the English channel, Kirchick explores the political suicide of the British Labor Party. Once the movement that donated the Menorah standing outside the Israeli Knesset, Corbyn’s leadership has laid bare the alarming presence of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the British Left. Coupled with his economic agenda, The Spectator’s Nick Cohen mourns a publicly discredited Labour guaranteeing “the right will remain in power for as far ahead as anyone can see…giving the Conservatives an easier ride than [any] opposition has done since the 19th century.” Labour’s frailty ails many social democratic parties in Europe. Facing a left flank radicalized by the financial crisis and identity politics and a traditional, native working class base wary of high migration levels, free trade, and European integration, European social democracy risks permanent political exile. Given its partnership with Christian democracy in building postwar Europe, this is a perilous omen.
The author’s remarkable and nuanced critique of the European political class’s response to the refugee crisis is particularly astute. Kirchick reminds us how too many legitimate questions about immigration, identity, and Islam are dismissed by European politicians and public intellectuals—particularly in Sweden and Germany—as “motivated solely by racism and anti-Islamic hysteria…[thus abandoning] the [issues] to the most unscrupulous and distasteful political forces.”
Given globalization, automation, strained welfare states, and existing youth unemployment, Kirchick finds unpersuasive claims of high migration levels providing “a cheap supply of young, cheap workers [needed] to revitalize the continent’s sluggish economy.” Moreover, alienation from fundamental values of the West is not limited to a small percentage of young men seduced by jihadism. Kirchick reviews a recent study of British Muslims by Trevor Phillips, a progressive writer who first popularized the term “Islamophobia” two decades ago. Today, Phillips—surveying polling of the community’s views on homosexuality, gender roles, and other topics—now fears the formation of a “nation within a nation” by a substantial segment of the country’s Muslim population. In France, such a “parallel society” exacts major costs, in the increasing persecution of Jews portrayed in both The End of Europe and feature stories from The Atlantic and Tablet.
Kirchick’s prescriptions show depth and boldness on these polarizing matters. Among other things, he calls for an asylum system more clearly distinguishing between refugees and economic migrants; a defense of the “secular public square from Islamist infiltration”; a “coherent foreign policy” to advance stability in both Africa and the Middle East; tackling unemployment in minority communities; and an end to “short-sighted and protectionist trade policies” hurting the developing world. To quote the Financial Times’ Janan Ganesh, Kirchick offers a missing “steel-tipped liberalism,” an escape from a postmodern moral relativism downplaying the need for cultural and social cohesion and a “blood and soil” nationalism defining such solidarity in highly exclusive terms.
Despite Kirchick’s journalistic eye and prose, The End of Europe does not reach its full promise. In some respects, Kirchick—the American living abroad in Europe newly awakened to the importance of the EU and transatlantic partnership—suffers from “the zeal of the convert” more devoted to a faith than its original followers. In his deconstruction of the European political class’s reflexive embrace of multiculturalism and flight from diplomatic and military greatness, Kirchick unmasks the stories postwar Europe tells about itself. But on other “founding myths” of today’s European Union—its paternal guidance of the post-communist east and underdeveloped southern periphery, the virtues of the euro and economic liberalization, and the self-evident wisdom of integration—Kirchick remains a firm believer. His ability to unravel orthodoxies falls away, and, with it, the power to grasp and answer today’s populism.
“The End of Europe goes beyond well-covered stories in the American press to uncover more subtle threats to Europe.”
For example, the rise of populist FIDESZ (Hungary) and Law & Justice (Poland) parties are treated as nearly ex nihilo events, perhaps arising at most from lingering demons within national psyches. Left out of this Manichean narrative is how other actors—the EU included—brought about this moment. Ostensibly pro-EU political parties wrecked their public standing. Ference Gyurscány, the former Hungarian prime minister, had an explicit rant to fellow Socialist Party members leaked to the press in 2006, saying that they “had lied at morning, at noon, and at night…we did not do anything for four years [in power].”
Poland’s Civic Platform lost credibility during the so-called “Tape Affair,” the release of “a series of secretly recorded conversations of [party] politicians in a posh restaurant, where they would regularly spend more taxpayer money on food and wine in one night than many Poles make in a month.” Among its most striking revelations was the attempted deal between the minister of the interior and the (supposedly non-partisan) Central Bank head “to stimulate GDP growth to increase Civic Platform’s electoral success.” The continued economic frustrations of Eastern Europeans—best reflected in rural poverty, alarming low birthrates rates, and high emigration levels—further made the ascendency of Eurosceptic, conservative populist parties a foregone conclusion.
Moreover, these trends are not solely a matter of globalization, or the failures of the “winners” in market economies to compensate the “losers.” In a recent Penguin introduction to the European Union, Cambridge historian of European integration Chris Bickerton perceptively describes how the post-1989 European ascension process undermined national democratic deliberation and the range of policy choices available to applicant countries.
As Bickerton writes, “the enlargement process strengthened the executive by making it the privileged interlocutor with the EU,” hollowing out national parliaments as places of meaningful debate. State aid for agriculture and industry was curtailed according to European standards, leaving “little room to adapt laws to local needs and circumstances.” Criticism of neoliberal economics was depicted as a challenge to a country’s identity as a modern European nation, with the result that countless dramatic “changes could not be politically debated and the direction of change could not be contested by citizens.”
As Bickerton concludes, “the contemporary crises of liberal democracy in Eastern Europe today cannot be dissociated from the EU’s expansion into Eastern Europe” [emphasis mine]. In its rightful desire to condemn alarming features of Orban’s premiership, The End of Europe fails to provide nuance to a country and region searching for clarity after decades of totalitarianism.
This continued search for clear, unambiguous allies and enemies of open societies yields similar limitations in Kirchick’s analysis of Greece. Anyone who has lived there—including this writer—knows well the corruption, political clientelism, and bureaucratic rot captured by the author. But followed by a blistering attack on the SYRIZA government, Kirchick only leaves the reader with nothing but cheap moralism about Greece’s need to “embrace modernization.” Truthfully, Greece resembles the heroes of classical tragedies: she is both a perpetrator and innocent victim of her present suffering. Kirchick’s reader is not asked to consider the very folly of the Eurozone’s attempt to create monetary union without fiscal or political union, let alone trying to map a single currency onto a range of widely different economies. The inherent power dynamics between creditor and debtor countries is not explored, nor how the currency presently favors German manufacturing interests. Greek elites certainly wrecked a great nation, but they found many accomplices elsewhere in Europe: the German banks who offered slush funds of cheap credit, foreign defense contractors whose bribery and deals fattened Greece’s military budget, or Luxembourg’s facilitation of Greek tax avoidance. It is equally strange how Kirchick can wax so confidently about the virtues of austerity, given the IMF’s own criticism of its failure in Greece.
Considering such questions would force the author to wrestle with some of the most important criticisms of the European Union as currently constructed. Much easier to only mask the Greek people as suffering the (just?) consequences of their “national proclivity for holding expectations incompatible with their actual commitments.”
Kirchick’s inability to provide depth for both Greece and Eastern Europe reveals the main failure of The End of Europe. While skilled in exposing the shallowness of European demagogues or the Kremlin’s multi-faceted campaign to cripple the West, Kirchick never fully articulates a positive case for the European Union as the supposed “greatest experiment in political cooperation in human history.” This is most blatant in his chapter on Brexit, where he prefers exposing the emptiness of Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson than answering serious advocates of the Leave camp. He fails to engage with the great voices of the left and right who, while rarely arguing for a total end of the European Union (let alone interstate cooperation and partnership), feel alarmed at the direction of the bloc and argue for a return to national democracies as the primary locus of political action and policy making.
On the right, there is Pierre Manent, Roger Scruton, and Eric Bénéton, who believe only democratic nation-states can inspire the necessary solidarity and civic virtue for a true polis. Given the non-existence of a true European demos, a “united Europe” would facilitate the depoliticization of society, with the common good defined less by vigorous public deliberation than the imperatives of the market, “human rights”, and technocracy. On the left, Chris Bickerton, Alan Johnson, and Wolfgang Streeck lament how the EU—in conjunction with national political leaders who fear electorates less enamored by globalization and liberal economics—limits the ability of individual countries to construct public policy corresponding to more interventionist, social democratic ambitions.
According to Bickerton, given the constraints of the single market’s “four freedoms,” the European Court of Justice, and monetary union, “national societies” are losing their powers “to control the market and to decide [where] the boundary should lie between private pursuits and public obligations.” Such a problem could theoretically be resolved with a true continental European democracy and an outpouring of solidarity by prosperous member-states, the favored hopes of philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Since this scenario assumes a historically unprecedented surrender of power by wealthy, influential countries, it is nothing less than a utopia. Better than for the Left to achieve its ambitions through democratic action within sovereign, more independent states than in technocratic and legal solutions by complex international institutions more easily prone to elite capture.
Perhaps the great challenges of sovereignty and egalitarianism to the European Union are worth putting temporarily on hold, since Kirchick demands our full attention to the threats of Putinism and continental populist movements. Since no Eurosceptic parties presently manifests a more responsible sovereigntist left or right, would critics best side with Brussels in a “republican front” against the “barbarians at the gate” (Le Pen, Wilders, etc.)? Maybe these critics risk the destruction of an “imperfect good” in the current European order, to be replaced not by a decentralized, vibrant Europe des patries (De Gaulle) but a continent of tariff wars, stagnation, and institutional decay in the east and south. In helping us to imagine that alternative, Kirchick and other defenders of the European Union in the American press play no small role.
But fundamental questions of sovereignty, citizenship, and equity cannot be ignored indefinitely. A victory by Macron, greater ECB “quantitative easing,” or a softer German line on Greece or Italy will not forever delay a reckoning. Aristotle’s insight stands: man is fundamentally a political animal. Even if mainstream European politicians and intellectuals refuse to answer these questions, the populists will certainly try to. In the final verdict of history, it will be such elite failure—not Putin, Le Pen, or Orban—which will inaugurate the “coming dark ages” to Europe Kirchick fears.
David Jimenez is an English Teaching Assistant in Romania for the Fulbright Program, where he teaches courses in English and American Studies at Ovidius University of Constanta for the academic year 2016–2017. He is a 2016 graduate of Bowdoin College, where he completed his BA in history. His WordPress blog, “‘Polar Bear in the Balkans,” features his writing on both travel and ideas. He is also a contributing opinion writer for Revista 22, a leading Romanian news weekly.