“Central and Eastern Europeans are more aware of the fragility of everything political”

9 January 2018

© Suhrkamp Verlag

In a provocative essay, Ivan Krastev reflects on the future of the European Union and the danger of its disintegration. Concerned with the political consequences of the refugee crisis, Brexit and the rise of far-right parties, he also tries to explain the divide between the EU's Eastern and Western member states.

What was the main reason for you to write this essay? What do you think was missing in the discussion about Europe?

I believe there were two things that pushed me to it: Firstly, there is a major difference in how the crisis that has hit Europe in the last ten years is seen in Central and Eastern Europe, on the one hand, and in Western Europe, on the other. This difference is based on the very different collective experiences that people had. In Central and Eastern Europe, people have witnessed the collapse of a political system and are probably much more aware of the fragility of everything political. But secondly, I believe that during the refugee crisis, there was quite a lot of moralising and a misunderstanding on both sides of what exactly was happening, and I decided to try to write my interpretation of what is behind all this.

The refugee crisis has divided Eastern and Western Europe. How do you explain the differences in dealing with this crisis?

From the Western point of view, there was something scandalous in Central European behaviour. The reason was the high level of hostility towards refugees in places where there were almost no refugees. In 2015, when almost 1 million people came to Germany, Slovakia had 168 refugees. That scandal led to talk about a crisis of solidarity. But I believe we are seeing a clash of solidarity: in fact, it was ethnic solidarity, solidarity with one’s own group compared with solidarity with the most vulnerable. The book tries to explain the differences and experiences that push East Europeans to react this way. For historical reasons, Central and East Europeans are much more suspicious of any type of cosmopolitan mind-set. Central and East European countries, as a rule, have very high levels of ethnic homogeneity, because most of these states were produced as a result of the ethnic cleansing of World War II. Paradoxically, anti-communism also plays a part in this, because communism sold itself as an internationalist ideology, so the resistance to this type of imposed internationalism was quite important. The 1968 movement, for example, has completely different meanings in Western Europe and in Central and Eastern Europe. In Western Europe, it was very much about identifying with people who are not like us—the ‘third world’, Cuba, and Vietnam — whereas in Central Eastern Europe, it was about national sovereignty, as in Poland and in Czechoslovakia.

How would you explain the hostility against refugees across Central Eastern Europe?

I believe that there are three important reasons that explain this type of hostility. The first is demographic anxiety: the fear that East Europeans’ small ethnic nations are aging. The second is the trauma that has been provoked by a huge number of people leaving Eastern Europe for the last twenty-five years. And third—unlike in Germany, where at least a majority of people trust the German state to be able to cope with such a problem—in Eastern Europe there was major mistrust in the capacity of post-communist states. In almost all of these countries, the failure to integrate refugees into the community was one of the primary examples of this. These very different factors added up to a situation in which East European societies, which are normally divided over everything, ended up being very much united in their hostility towards the refugees.

The outlook is quite sinister for the European project. Is there any way that Europe can be saved?

I don’t believe that there are structural reasons for the European Union to disintegrate. It is up to the political talent and initiative of leaders and societies whether it is going to survive. Part of the problem of the European project was that for a long period, disintegration was unthinkable, and this was seen as one of the major sources of European integration. Now, after Brexit, we can imagine that a certain level of disintegration is possible, even though nobody has a clear idea of what it could look like. What is clear is that if the European Union starts to disintegrate, it’s not going to return to the nation-states in the way they were before. The European Union has the capacity to survive, it has the capacity to reinvent itself; but it is going to be different. I don’t know if it is going to be better or worse, but I do believe that the EU’s very survival can be a source of its legitimacy. People ask what happened with the Habsburg Empire in 1918, but for me a much more interesting question is: Why did the Habsburg Empire not collapse in the previous century, when so many people were expecting it to?

In this context, you recommend that Europe should try improvisation and flexibility. What do you mean by that?

The major message coming from Germany during the financial crisis was that in order for the European project to be preserved, we should stick to the rules. Then came the migration crisis, and Germany itself decided to break the rules—which is fine, because rules are important, but in a moment of crisis, improvisation means that you should try to look for ad hoc solutions, which increase the chance of the project to be preserved. Therefore, any dogmatic view, any rigidity in dealing with Europe is not going to help. I believe more flexibility, both in the eurozone crisis and on the refugee issue, are going to help, because if the European Union is going to grow through this crisis, people will need to trust much more in its future.

© University of Pennsylvania Press

Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He is a member of the Academic Advisory Board of ZOiS.

Krastev, Ivan: After Europe, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.