In a Blind Alley

15. 3. 2017

An interview with Jacques Rupnik by Maciej Nowicki

States no longer control the course of events, politics is a game of appearances. Therefore, the only solution is unified Europe—says jacques Rupnik in conversation with Maciej Nowicki.

Let us start with Central Europe. Solidarity between the countries of the region is virtually non-existent and the crisis even deepened the differences of opinion. Why?

It is striking that the countries of Central Europe, although they share the same space and have similar problems, act in completely different ways. In the case of Hungary, what I call the populist backlash appeared late but since the very start in a virulent form. And it seems that the Hungarian lunacy will not go away soon. And the Czech Republic is struggling with the legacy of Václav Klaus. Euroscepticism, presented as new realism, is rife among the elites. Lead articles in the press assume a europhobic tone, on a par with British tabloids. As long as Václav Havel was president, a counterweight existed. When he left office in 2003, only Klaus remained.

Will that change now? klaus was replaced by Miloš zeman and all signs show that next year’s elections will be won by the left.

Yes, but does it mean that the Chech Republic will have a genuine foreign policy? The Czechs broke with the Habsburg Empire but they created a new “Austria.”They have the following principle: we want to be small, wealthy and quiet. We want to sit in our own corner and the outside world should not meddle in our affairs. And we will not meddle either.

And Poland?

This is the only country in the region with a genuine foreign policy. Slovaks or Hungarians are completely uninterested in geopolitical problems, while Poland believes that the space beyond its eastern border is very important, that relations with Russia are very significant and that if you want to mean something in the EU, you cannot endlessly repeat, as Klaus does: “What you do is wrong. It will end in a disaster” or pretend that the problem does not exist. Poland understands that if there will be no Europe, there will be Germany and Russia. Therefore it does not intend to follow Orbán and fight against communism, which collapsed 25 years ago or to call for bringing Europe down the way Klaus does.

I will assume the role of the devil’s advocate. The Czechs keep to their own turf but so far they earn more than the Poles, have better productivity and average savings twice as big. Their social security system and health care work better than in Poland.

You forget that in the early 20th century Poland was a country of poor peasants tending their small patches of land while Bohemia was an industrialized country. The hiatus was huge. And today? In 1995, Czech average earnings were 73 % of the European average, now it is 80 %. There is some progress but the Poles are catching up much faster: from 43 % of the European average in 1995 to 61 % now. Slovakia has made an even more spectacular leap: from 48 % to 72 %. And in the early 90s the Czech were afraid that Slovakia would draw them down. This is why they so enthusiastically welcomed the “velvet divorce.” In a word, there is nothing strange in the fact that the quality of living is higher in the Czech Republic than in Poland. The opposite would be hugely surprising. But it does not mean that the Czech strategy has proven successful.

You said recently of the EU that it is difficult to put down fires on the peripheries when the centre is stricken with discouragement. Let us begin with France. What does the more and more evident weakness of this country mean for the EU?

The French-German engine is becoming a thing of the past. Until recently, Sarkozy met with Merkel and then they jointly announced to the rest what their decisions were. Today Paris is promoting solutions different from the German ones. In this way it is playing the role of a country trying to bridge the divide between Southern and Northern Europe. This is a key issue for if this divide deepens, the whole European project will founder.

Is France strong enough to prevent it?

This is the most important element of the puzzle. The credibility of France depends on its ability to implement domestic reforms. And today many people wonder if Hollande is up to that task. People need a leader. Hollande should address the nation and say like Churchill did: “The situation is bad, you cannot ignore it any longer. We must make cuts on the labor market and in the social security system. It will hurt. But I can promise you one thing: we will do it in such a way that the burdens are shared equally.” Instead of such a speech we have a scandal with the Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzak, who was hiding his money in Swiss bank accounts. This is a disaster. After all, Cahuzak was supposed to guarantee that the cuts would be fair.

You stress that France forms a kind of bridge between the North and the South. From Central European perspective this mediating role is seen much less clearly. When I spoke to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, he told me that the economically weakened France perceives Central Europe as one of the sources of the German economic power. And that it translates into a distanced French view of the countries of our region.

France can neither push away nor attract Central Europe. The French simply have other problems. But it is true that we are witnessing a withering away of the French influence in the region, which I find very unfortunate. The integration of Central Europe mediated by Germany means the fulfillment of the ominous prophecy of those who said after 1989: “What will happen to the region? This will be Mitteleuropa! The break-up of Czechoslovakia? The Germans will benefit from this. The break-up of Yugoslavia? They are overjoyed. Mitteleuropa will be the German sphere of influence.” I fought against such views but it may turn out that this vision was not completely false. For the first time we are dealing with a Germany which is both dominant economically in Central Europe and less interested in partnership with France. There is a famous saying by Thomas Mann…

Germany has to be pro-European for Europe not to become German.

Exactly. Today we have both. Therefore, what Hollande is trying to do is so important: Germany is playing more egoistically and he attempts to fulfill the role of a counterweight.

Formerly you often wrote warningly about populism in Central Europe. In fact, populist parties are getting stronger in the “hard core” of Europe.

Let us not exaggerate. It we take three largest EU countries, Germany, France and Great Britain, in every one of them the choice is between two mainstream forces. Unfortunately, you cannot say that about Central Europe. Nevertheless, you are right, populism is growing. In the times of crisis, the scope for choice has been narrowed down. For example, what choice do the Greeks have if their government does not decide on anything?

Greece is a small country in the backyard of Europe. But the situation is similar in Italy— the founding EU country and the third largest economy in the eurozone. This is why Mario Monti failed so spectacularly in the last elections. Italians see him as an agent of Berlin or Brussels.

I have a great respect for Monti but he was not elected by the citizens but by European technocracy. Governments are assessed today on the basis of their ability to gain or keep the trust of the markets. And where is the voters’ trust amongst all that? The citizens are constantly hearing: “Politics no longer exists, you are functioning in the context of globalization, financial markets have a global character, you are dependent on them.” Politics has been drained of content, for the left and the right are forced to do the same things and if they prove unable to cope, they are sent a Papademos, like in Greece, or a Monti. If there is a problem with Spain tomorrow, a Spanish “Monti” will be delegated there. And this very idea—that in the times of crisis technocracy must replace democracy—is reinforcing populism. For today the paranoid claim of the populists that the elites concocted a conspiracy aimed at enslaving the nation may seem true.

There is also another element—the conspiracy of the banks.

Exactly. Who is behind the elites? Global financial markets, which pull the strings. The claim of the populists is false but sometimes almost irresistible. For the migration of oligarchs and corporations to tax heavens has assumed unimaginable proportions.

In the case of American companies, it is estimated at one trillion seven hundred billion euro…

And at the same time people are told, we will liquidate this or that school, for we are in debt etc. Woody Allen once said: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” The fact that the populists are saying that a conspiracy exists, does not mean that the problem is not there. It is. Today we are discovering a different face of globalization, so much praised in the last 20 years. This is no longer the end of history, the triumph of the market, universal bliss. States no longer control the course of events, politics is a game of appearances. We found ourselves in a blind alley. Therefore, I think the only solution is unified Europe, with the common currency, banking union, common banking regulations, fiscal convergence, common fight against tax heavens. Something like a European federalism.

Today no one wants federalism…

But this is the only way to mean anything in the global world. Moreover, without federalization more and more people will be saying: “You burdened us with a triumph of a total market, where oligarchs and financiers are pulling the strings. On the one hand you have been using Europe as a machine for liquidating our nation states and on the other hand you brought in immigrants, who took our jobs away. You put us between a rock and a hard place. Therefore, we are voting for parties, which are saying ‘no.’”

Maciej Nowicki

Maciej Nowicki is Deputy Editor In Chief of Aspen Review.

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