Wake up, Europe, to what World We Are in!

Europe still has enormous soft power. It’s one of our problems – says Timothy Garton Ash in an interview with Aleksander Kaczorowski.

You said that 15th of October, the day of Polish elections, was one of the best days in recent times for Europe. 

Yes. Not only because of the result, but because of the way the result came about. You have clearly an unfair election, but it was won in a beautiful way by a massive turnout, and particularly by the fact that more young people voted than old and more women than men. What could be better? 

When I went to accompany my old friends to vote earlier in the day, I was full of apprehension. I didn’t expect such a good result. 

Nobody did. 

I thought it would be very close. 

But why does it also matter for Europe?

First of all, because Viktor Orbán can no longer talk in the name of Central Europe. 

He tried to. 

He not only tried, he did. There were several years when he thought he could speak in the name of Central Europe. And I honestly think a third term for PiS would have meant further steps of Orbánisation a la polonaise.

Obviously, reversing the quite far-reaching state capture by PiS, when the President has a veto, and doing it by legal means is going to be very difficult. We all know that. The process will only really be complete in two years time, when we have a different President. But that said, I think there’s an awful lot that can be done in the meantime. 

For example?

I would propose the earliest possible meeting of the Weimar Triangle to discuss the big strategic crisis facing Europe. The Ukraine War, the Israeli-Hamas war and migration. That is where I would start. 

Not with the specific issues of EU funds and rule of law?

Obviously those have to be addressed too. But Donald Tusk has already said that. 

Let me be quite frank. I was sceptical about Tusk returning to Polish politics. I didn’t think it would work. 

Because he has such a big negative electorate? 

Yeah. But, chapeau bas, it worked. You have to pay tribute to him. He’s done really, really well. But in the process he lost some of the kind of nimbus of a European statesman. So actually, he has to get back to the European world where he’s playing a major role addressing issues which are not just Polish issues. 

Europe is always best with member states working together. It often used to be Britain, France and Germany. Britain has left, Spain is utterly preoccupied with its own problems, Italy under Giorgia Meloni, a post neo-fascist, no longer can play this role. So there is a vacant seat for that third nation. And not only is Poland the most important country in Central Europe, but also Tusk has held the Presidency of the European Council. 

Let’s start with the first issue that you mentioned, the Ukraine War. What’s at stake? And where are we? 

Four weeks ago I was talking to wounded soldiers in the rehabilitation clinic in Lviv. Men without a leg, without two legs, without an arm, without a hand. All because of the terrible Russian minefields. And they were telling me just how almost impossible it is to make major territorial progress against some of the largest minefields in history. And then two or three lines of well-dug-in Russian defence. And in addition to the fact that as one of them put to me very simply, I quote, “Russia has more men”. So militarily it’s proving very, very difficult. 

Meanwhile, US support is clearly diminishing. Already before the Israel-Hamas war, but now even more.

Therefore, if we are serious about helping Ukraine to something we can call victory, Europe needs to do more. Europe needs to think how we can prepare Ukraine by stepping up our defence industry, increasing the supply of arms and ammunition, by helping with training as well as economic support, so that they can make more military progress next year. And go on with the offensive. Because otherwise, there’s a real danger that Putin is winning. 

And then we’ve got something like Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya, but much, much bigger? Is it something you are afraid of? 

No, I don’t think that’s going to happen. But I think Putin’s view is, if I can’t control a whole of Ukraine through a Yanukovych or whoever, I’m going to take as much of it as possible for Russia, forever, and leave the rest as a basket case, as a non-viable, exhausted, worn out, weak state. That’s a danger. And that is a defeat for the West. 

As you probably know, my Oxford research project did big polling with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

According to this, the majority of people around the world think Russia will win within the next five years. And an awful lot of people, including 67% in China and one third of Europeans, think the EU is likely to collapse within the next 20 years. There is a strong correlation between those two groups, those who think Russia is likely to win and those who think the EU is likely to collapse. So the credibility of Europe is at stake, nothing less. 

What are the countries which can really support Ukrainians with arms? Germany? France? 

What we need is a genuinely European strategy for military and defence industrial support. In other words, what at the moment is happening is each national government is saying to their national defence industry, “Try and do a bit more”. The problem is that they cannot guarantee large enough orders for long enough, for say, Rheinmetall to build an entire new factory making ammunition. And that’s the kind of scale of what’s needed. Macron talks the talk about the war economy, but we are nowhere near that. And so it’s a really major leap in the way Europe works in relation to its defence industry and all together the military support. And that’s just not happening. 

That’s the issue which should be taken by Tusk to Macron? 

Yeah. One of the issues, absolutely. And to do it, he should speak as a European with the credibility of someone coming from a country which is dramatically expanding its defence spending. 

Your second issue was the Hamas-Israel war. Poland or the Czech Republic are very pro-Israeli, let’s say, in the attitude of the governments, but that’s a huge difference between Central Europe and the West. 

Yes, except of course Germany. 

I think the first question you always have to ask is who started this war? The answer is Hamas. There’s no question about it. Hamas is cynically embedded under the civilian population in Gaza.

I think Europe, which has been on the whole impressively united on Ukraine and almost as impressively disunited on Israel and Hamas, should try and forge a common position. And this is actually much closer to the one of the United States. Which says, dear Israel, have you thought this through? How does this war end? What happens after the war? 

In my new book Homelands. A Personal History of Europe I quote a conversation with Vice-President Dick Cheney some months into the war on terror. I asked him, how does the war on terror end? And he said, with the elimination of the terrorists. And as I said in the book, I was shocked not by the ruthlessness of this comment, but by its idiocy, because that’s not how war ends. 

I have a horrible feeling that Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been a real misfortune for Israel, as many Israelis were on the streets to say, is making the same mistake. 

It is not about being pro-Israel or pro-Arab. If you are a friend of Israel, it’s precisely about thinking about the long-term future of Israel. And, as an honest friend, you ask the question, where is this leading you? You’re gonna destroy many of the military factors of Hamas, which is exactly the right thing to do. But what’s happened to the civilian population in Gaza is gonna be a recruiting sergeant for future Hamas or even more extreme terrorists. 

It is possible that the cunning of history will be such that this terrible war brings people back to the absolute necessity of a two-state solution. Whereas before 7 October, Netanyahu’s strategy was precisely to prevent a two-state solution. And increasingly people were saying, oh, it’s never going to happen. But at the end of the day, it’s the only way forward. There are two people who have a deeply justified historical claim to the same territory. The only good way forward is for them both to have a state. 

What about the third big issue, immigration? It started in 2015 as a big challenge to European unity. 

So here is what I fear. I have a real fear that 2023 may be turning into a new 2015, a year in which fear of immigration, and the fear is a crucial thing, even panic about immigration, is driving the politics of so many European countries sharply to the right. Look at the election successes of the AfD in Germany. 

What should be done?

We have to recognise that we have to manage migration. Otherwise, the Brexit slogan “Take back control” is going to be a big problem. The “Take back control” slogan captured the heart of what people are worried about. It’s not the absolute numbers, it’s the sense it’s not under control. So you’ve got to convey to those who fear immigration that it’s under control.

Denmark has consensus between the parties on strict control on immigration. Result, the issue is not so salient in Danish politics. I literally go across the bridge from Copenhagen to Malmö and the very first interview I have for the Swedish edition is all about immigration. And then the next interview, and the next interview, and immigration keeps coming up. That contrast between these two otherwise similar countries is very telling. Sweden just took in a lot more people – to their credit – in 2015, and the integration has been very unsuccessful. 

I think Donald Tusk would be very happy with the Danish approach. 

There’s a chance for the European Union to become not only the soft power? 

Europe still has enormous soft power. It’s enormously attractive. It’s one of our problems. But is not respected as a hard power. By hard power, we mean both economic and military power.

And by the way, while France and Germany have been having a bad-tempered argument about whether to include civil nuclear power in the green energy strategy, several other countries around the world are talking about getting nuclear weapons. Wake up, Europe, to what world we are in! 

Are we starting a new era? 

Yes, clearly that is what is happening. The 24th of February, 2022 ends the post-Wall era. Now we are in a new period whose character and whose name we don’t yet know. But what we do know from history is that beginnings are really important. The first years of a new period, a new settlement, a new order are decisive. Think of 1945 to 1950, that created the institutions that we still have today. Think of the five years after 1989. So it’s an absolutely formative period. 

That’s the big picture, if Macron, Scholz and Tusk are sitting down to have a conversation about the next ten years of the European Union.


Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He writes a column on international affairs in the Guardian. His latest book Homelands: A Personal History of Europe was published in 2023.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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