Had I been cryogenically frozen in January 2005, I would have gone to my provisional rest as a happy European. With the enlargement of the European Union to include many post-Communist democracies, the 1989 “return to Europe” dream of my Central European friends was coming true. EU member states had agreed on a constitutional treaty, loosely referred to as the European constitution. The unprecedented project of European monetary union seemed to be confounding the deep skepticism that I and many others had earlier expressed.1 It was amazing to travel without hindrance from one end of the continent to another, with no border controls inside the expanding zone of states adhering to the Schengen Agreement and with a single currency in your pocket for use throughout the eurozone.
Madrid, Warsaw, Athens, Lisbon, and Dublin felt as if they were bathed in sunlight from windows newly opened in ancient dark palaces. The periphery of Europe was apparently converging with the continent’s historic core around Germany, the Benelux countries, France, and northern Italy. Young Spaniards, Greeks, Poles, and Portuguese spoke optimistically about the new chances offered them by “Europe.” Even notoriously euroskeptical Britain was embracing its European future under Prime Minister Tony Blair. And then there was the avowedly pro-European Orange Revolution in Ukraine. As I watched peaceful protesters in Kiev waving the European flag, with its yellow stars on a blue background, I could inwardly intone the European anthem—Beethoven’s music for the “Ode to Joy.”2
Cryogenically reanimated in January 2017, I would immediately have died again from shock. For now there is crisis and disintegration wherever I look: the eurozone is chronically dysfunctional, sunlit Athens is plunged into misery, young Spaniards with doctorates are reduced to serving as waiters in London or Berlin, the children of Portuguese friends seek work in Brazil and Angola, and the periphery of Europe is diverging from its core. There is no European constitution, since that was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands later in 2005. The glorious freedom of movement for young Poles and other Central and Eastern Europeans has now contributed substantially to a shocking referendum vote by my own country, Britain, to leave the EU altogether. And Brexit brings with it the prospect of being stripped of my European citizenship on the thirtieth anniversary of 1989.
A young liberal hero of 1989, Viktor Orbán, is now a nationalist populist leading Hungary toward authoritarianism and explicitly praising the “illiberal” example of Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Border controls have been reimposed between Schengen countries (“temporarily,” of course), in response to the flood of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—areas where our so-called European foreign policy has proved little…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.