The Cacophony of Europe, the Cacophony of the World

15. 3. 2017

An Interview with Dominique Moisi by Maciej Nowicki

Perhaps Angela Merkel has gone too far in her hospitality and openness. Still, she did something which a great politician should do: she defined the refugee problem in moral terms—says Dominique Moisi in an interview with Maciej Nowicki.

How do you see the government change in Poland?

Poland was the top student in the EU. This is hard to overestimate. Poland is the largest country in the region, and the fact that it is also the most dynamic country—economically and politically—really meant something. Poland also gave a lot to the “Old Union” states—its Euroenthusiasm was an injection of optimism which is very much lacking today. And suddenly everything changed: from a Poland with the potential of becoming the fourth most powerful European state (alongside with Germany, France, and Great Britain) we passed to a Poland which seems to embrace what is called the “illiberal democracy.” The change of government in Poland has a symbolic aspect—the most important country among those joining the EU in recent years is turning away from Europe…

And what does it mean for the region? The new government in Warsaw is joining the other Visegrad Group countries?

For some time there has been a very distinct North-South economic divide in the EU. Thus we have a successful Europe centered around Germany, and a Europe where almost nothing works, its most perfect anti-model being Greece. Today a second divide, between the West and the East, is added to that. The countries which have joined the EU after the year 2004 display an attitude to immigrants and refugees which is absolutely contrary to European values. Of course, in the New Europe there are people for whom solidarity and responsibility for others still mean something. And in the Old Europe there are nationalist and protectionist movements which sometimes smack of the 1930s.

Nevertheless, there is a marked difference in sensitivity between these two Europes. Perhaps Angela Merkel has gone too far in her hospitality and openness. Still, she did something which a great politician should do: she defined the refugee problem in moral terms. It is extremely important. Because contrary to what one of the spokesmen of the “New Europe”—the former Czech President Václav Klaus—is saying, accepting immigrants does not mean suicide for Europe. Europe will commit suicide if we are completely indifferent to their fate, hidden behind ever higher walls and barbed wire… I am not an advocate of pontificating, but the disparaging of universal values—and we increasingly often see that in the “New Europe”—is a behavior worthy of an undemocratic power, such as Putin’s Russia.

Poles still consider themselves poor. And they believe that if anyone needs help, it is them rather than the refugees…

Unfortunately, the Poles—and other nations of the region—have forgotten that they have been helped in recent years. And hence they should shoulder part of the burden. But it is not just about money. What a historical irony—quite recently the authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe had put up barbed wire fences to stop their own citizens from fleeing to freedom. Today, having recovered their liberty, the same nations are building barbed wire fences to stop refugees from entering their territory.

Jean Quatremer, a correspondent of Liberation, told me some time ago that until recently the “laboratory of bad ideas” in Europe was Italy. We owe fascism or Berlusconism to them. And now the Visegrad Group countries have become this laboratory. Are these states really inventing something new and bad? Or is an impulse coming from the center—the “Old Europe” is falling apart and the “New Europe” is imitating it?

I do not think that Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary are inventing anything. Poland in 2016 has nothing in common with yesterday’s Italy. It is rather a return to the past. Many EU countries are backtracking today. Since the democratic culture and the European traditions are older in Western countries, reaching the pre-European, non-democratic stage takes more time than in your countries. Besides, specific experiences play a significant role. The descendants of those, who inflicted suffering—Germans—are more generous, because they believe they have to redeem their wrongdoings. The countries of Central Europe believe that they are owed such a lot, because they were left at the mercy of successive dictatorships— from Hitler to Stalin. That is not all: self-confidence plays a huge role. Hungarians are very uneasy in the new world—in contrast to Germans. As we have long known, there is a very clear relationship between trusting your own potential and openness to others, between self-doubt and voluntary isolation. And finally, in the West we have different habits. Cultural diversity is our staple, it is natural for us to live next to non-Europeans. In the “New Europe,” things look different. I will never forget my visit in Warsaw with a very important British politician. He was unable to contain his astonishment. At some point he exclaimed: “What a change after Paris, London, or New York! Only white people!”

You said that Angela Merkel perhaps had done too much for the refugees. What would the right measure be?

You have to find diplomatic solutions in Syria. You definitely have to offer more help to Greece, Turkey, or Jordan, so that refugees could stay there. At the same time, you have to remember that acting on fear will solve nothing. Perhaps there are terrorists among the refugees—I am not ruling it out. But treating all refugees as potential terrorists will not help. For it is perhaps the best way to eventually turn them into terrorists.

In recent years, Poland has built its policy on a rapprochement with Germany. Radosław Sikorski memorably said that he would most fear a Germany which would not accept the role of the European leader. The new government behaves as if Germany was not very important for Poland.

I don’t understand that. Poland has to choose. Either it believes that the Russian threat is something serious—and then it must have the best possible relations with Berlin. Or it believes (but it seems that it does not) that there is no reason to worry about Russia. And then Polish government can say whatever it wants about Angela Merkel. But the Poles cannot simultaneously scold Merkel and be afraid of Putin. It does not make any sense.

Besides, the Polish-German rapprochement is a great achievement. It has taken many years. It is not just the question of Sikorski’s speech, but also the relations between Tusk and Merkel. It all started much earlier—before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. And tinkering with that today is something terribly irresponsible.

Many commentators emphasize that the position of Germany is weakening. Since mainstream parties in Europe are losing in importance for the sake of populists, Berlin finds it ever more difficult to find the partners to talk to. The rise of populists has one more aspect—no one accepts the German policy of “open door” to refugees.

There is no doubt that Mrs. Merkel is considerably weakened politically now. However, you would have to be terribly naive to write her off. Anyone, who knows anything about her career, can see what an extremely tough player she is. She has often coped with problems which seemed unresolvable. Besides, Germany remains the greatest European power. This has not changed one bit. France is weakened, and on top of that it is entering a pre-election period—in 2017 we will have a new president. As for Great Britain, we don’t even know if it will stay in the EU.

Exactly. Three years ago no one assumed that there might be a Brexit. Just like no one expected that Marine Le Pen would come as far as she did. Can we be certain that Germany— fearing a refugee wave—would not change for the worse? Even today full 40% of Germans demand the chancellor’s resignation…

What happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve is serious. So serious that you could justifiably wonder if it was not arranged by a foreign power which wants to harm Germany. But fortunately, the worst scenario is by no means guaranteed. Marine Le Pen was stopped after all in the second round of regional elections. And her chances of becoming president of France are almost nil. I also believe that there will be no Brexit. And I am convinced that Germany will not go crazy.

It is fashionable today to predict a suicide of Europe. One reason is that we live in a reality were good news is regarded as no news: the media highlight what is going wrong. Of course, Europe no longer plays such a role as before. But we must realize that for the rest of the world the image of Europe we send abroad is almost as important as what we do. And that the threats which Europe is facing are only a small part of the threats the rest of the world has to cope with. From the perspective of China, which we so admire for its rapid growth, Europe is a land of dreams…

In an era where everyone delights in apocalyptic predictions, a touch of restraint would certainly do no harm. But still I am going ask the next question of the pessimist—you believe that there will be no Brexit. The polls so far point to something different. And what if the British do leave the EU?

It would be a huge mistake. For in a time when America is undergoing a great political crisis, Russia is going the way of historical revanchism, and the Middle East is producing insane ideologies, a lonely struggle against the world is not the best option. A lot has been said about what Great Britain would lose in the case of a Brexit. I would like to add one thing: if it really comes to that, France will be very badly affected—opponents of the EU in my country will be strengthened. This would be very bad news. Everyone sees that France is not doing very well. Theoretically it has the means to overcome the crisis and the voters do show the desire for reforms. Nevertheless, it also must have a president capable of pushing these reforms through. The example of Angela Merkel clearly shows that it is the quality of leadership which differentiates Germany from the rest of Europe. Unfortunately, since 1995 we have had poor leaders. Jacques Chirac, who did almost nothing. Nicolas Sarkozy, who promised much more than he actually managed to do. And François Hollande, who has even greater problems with really acting on his promises. I think that Alain Juppe has the potential for becoming a real leader. In fact, the majority of French people entertain such a hope… The polls show it.

You wrote recently that in some sense Trump was a mirror image of Marine Le Pen. The EU and the United States seem to be so different. Why have they produced a similar species of populism?

Similar sentiments are prevailing on both sides of the Atlantic. Fear and anger belong to dominant emotions. Populist candidates allow people to express them, they are a kind of confidantes for anger and fear. However, on both sides of the Atlantic there is also something completely different—a desire for a competent and experienced candidate, capable of protecting the country. Many voters think that the world has become too dangerous to choose people who have not been tested. Therefore the most popular politicians are Juppe in France and Hillary Clinton in the US, despite all. On both sides of the Atlantic, politics is based on a contradiction— we have the desire to express anger, and on the other hand we have the desire for being protected, reassured. It is a kind of democratic schizophrenia.

In short, the US and Europe are much more similar to each other than it seemed to us until recently…

There is nothing strange in that. On both sides of the Atlantic we observe a similar rise of inequalities—and hence a rebellion against them. We have similar demographic processes: an increased importance of ethnic minorities— resisted by the populist parties of the “whites.” Even a similar leadership crisis. Today’s world is one big cacophony and the US is to no small extent responsible for that. Throughout his presidency, Obama seemed to have one obsession— he wanted to be the opposite of George W. Bush. Bush wanted to intervene everywhere. And Obama’s doctrine could be reduced to the principle “don’t do anything stupid,” as he himself put it. Not doing anything stupid is by far too little in a world standing on the verge of an explosion. The Americans sensed these constant hesitations of their own president—which only strengthened the atmosphere of anger and fear in the country.

John Kerry suggested recently that sanctions against Russia might be revoked. Do you see a way for making a deal with Putin’s Russia which would be beneficial for us?

Russia is in a very difficult situation today. The price of oil is less than $30 a barrel, which makes Russia unable to negotiate from a position of strength. It despises Europe, it is trying to weaken it, but it is very weak itself. This really could be a good moment to seek an agreement with Russia, based on more realistic assumptions. An agreement under which Putin would take a much softer line towards Ukraine—he could, for example, declare: “I won the Crimea, but I don’t want the rest.” He would constrain his ambitions in the Middle East, from which nothing good for the world is coming. In short, a deal with Russia makes sense only on one condition: that Russia understands that it cannot constantly destabilize the established order. And that if it keeps doing that, the ultimate cost for Russia will be much higher than for us.

Maciej Nowicki

Maciej Nowicki is Deputy Editor In Chief of Aspen Review.

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