How to Avoid Europe’s Disintegration
There is a new trend that is developing in Europe – a rebellion against the elite. In my view, this rebellion represents the biggest challenge that Europe faces today. This type of anti-elite sentiment is becoming stronger and stronger while there is no clear positive agenda of what those who rebel really want. It is clear, however, that perpetuating the status quo will only make this group angrier.
This essay is from issue 5/2015 of New Eastern Europe. To read the full essay, please download or purchase the issue at: https://www.neweasterneurope.eu/component/content/article/1014-issue/1699-on-conflict-and-reconciliation-issue-5-2015
One of the main plots of the storyline of the current European debate is that we are too Euro-centric to understand that we cannot explain ourselves to others. The Ukrainian conflict is a perfect illustration here – as it is viewed in a totally different way inside and outside Europe. Clearly, the current crisis in Europe, which has been taking place for seven years now, is very different to other crises which have taken place in the world. I remember when the crisis began in 2008. In a conversation with José Manuel Barroso, the then President of the European Commission, he asked us analysts and experts a straightforward question: “What can you do for us?” My response was also straightforward: “Not much,” I said honestly.
I am not a specialist on integration. I am an expert, however, on disintegration. I know how things collapse; this is what I have been studying all my life. I was working on the Balkans and I know how they collapsed, and before that I studied how the Soviet Union had collapsed. That is why what I said to Barrosso was: “What we can offer you is a project on the political logic of disintegration”.
As a result, for almost two years at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, we held seminars and conversations. We invited historians and politicians to participate with us in discussions focused on different examples of disintegration, including that of the Hapsburg Empire, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
Signals of collapse
Three major themes emerged from these discussions that are critical to understanding the current crisis in Europe. The first is the fact of the unforeseen collapse. Let us not forget that even a year or two before the collapse of the Soviet Union such an event was perceived as unthinkable. Consider a senior panel of Pentagon experts, gathering the most experienced authorities on the Soviet Union in December 1990, which declared the chance of the Soviet Union collapsing was around 20 per cent. In a similar vein, the communists claimed that due to the very strong level of interdependence, the demise of the USSR was not possible and would not make sense. As later events have shown, many things that do not make economic sense often do happen.
To put this point another way: part of the problem that we have today is that we take the European Union for granted. The more we do this, the higher the risk of its disintegration. The belief that something cannot collapse leads to high-risk behaviour.
The second theme that came out of the discussions in Vienna was that disintegration was always the result of an internal cause. And while indeed the anti-integration bloc never prevails over a pro-integration one (even in the case of the Soviet Union a majority wanted the Soviet Union to persist), it is a certain type of political dynamism that is created and starts to develop a logic of its own. It is this logic that begins to build and nurture itself within society.
The third feature that emerged from our discussions was an observation that big projects do not collapse from the periphery. Hence, Bulgaria or Greece will not disintegrate the European Union, no matter how hard they try. Disintegration takes place from the centre. It starts to take place when the winners begin to get the feeling that they are the losers in the project. This is why Poland is such an important country for many in Europe. If Poland, which is often perceived as one of the biggest winners of European integration, starts to have second thoughts about the EU project, then other countries, including Germany, would themselves start to question the project…
Yet this does not mean that the European elite needs to force an “identity” on its people. By doing so, it forces a synthetic structure into society, one that is not real and will not take hold. In Europe, nevertheless, there have already been several attempts made to create a European identity similar to a “national” one. However, these attempts have failed and will continue to fail. There will always be divisions in Europe, such as in the case of the 2003 Iraq war when Europe was divided between its East and West; or now with the crisis in Ukraine. This time Europe is divided between the North and the South. The latter is not interested in having Europe turn into an anti-Putin project. This sentiment has emerged not because there is a great affinity for Vladimir Putin in the southern half of Europe, but because they do not believe it is so important for Europe. The southern states are much more concerned with the immigration crisis than Putin’s proxy armies in a localised area in Ukraine.
I do believe, however, that the Ukrainian crisis will lead to identity building in Europe. But it will not be an identity building of Europeans, rather of Ukrainians. We can see that a new Ukrainian nation is being born. Unfortunately, this is an identity-building opportunity for Russia as well. We will start to see a new, more extreme Russian national identity emerge as a result of the crisis and the propaganda that is being pumped by the Kremlin to its citizens.
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Ivan Krastev is the Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia Bulgaria and a permanent fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna. He is also a member of the editorial board of New Eastern Europe.