Back in 2013—an age ago, the calm before the storm—José Manuel Barroso, then the president of the European Commission, gave a speech launching a new project. This was before the refugee crisis, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, before the British voted to leave the European Union, before the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, London, and Barcelona.
Nevertheless, Barroso—like many, many others—saw which way the wind was blowing even then. Europe’s leaders seemed technocratic and remote—and they knew it. Europe’s political institutions were unpopular. The euro crisis had left numerous people angry and resentful. Worse, younger Europeans seemed not to get the point of the union at all. Barroso made a proposal:
I think we need, in the beginning of the XXI century, namely for the new generation that is not so much identified with this narrative of Europe, to continue to tell the story of Europe. Like a book: it cannot only stay in the first pages, even if the first pages were extremely beautiful. We have to continue our narrative, continue to write the book of the present and of the future. This is why we need a new narrative for Europe.
With that, he launched the “New Narrative for Europe,” a cultural project that looked impressive on paper. Artists, writers, and scientists from across the continent signed a declaration: “In light of the current global trends, the values of human dignity and democracy must be reaffirmed.” They made contributions to a new book, The Mind and Body of Europe: A New Narrative. Debates on the New Narrative were held across Europe, in Milan, Warsaw, and Berlin as well as Brussels. Members of the European Commission (each member state has one) held “citizens’ dialogues” across the continent too. A New Narrative website was created so that young Europeans could “have their say.”
The aim was to create a strong sense of European federal identity, and while it’s easy for Anglo-Saxons to laugh, many modern European states were created by precisely this kind of top-down campaign—think of the unification of Italy or Germany in the nineteenth century, or the resurrection of Poland after World War I. Barroso’s project had some of the elements of a popular national movement: intellectual and artistic support, a consistent idea, an inspiring concept.
Except, of course, that it was not popular. The artists, writers, and scientists squabbled about the declaration. The Mind and Body of Europe sank without a trace. The debates went unremarked. The website is still there but seems not to have been recently updated. None of the six books reviewed here, all by experts on European politics, mentions the New Narrative project at all. Giles Merritt, the author of Slippery Slope: Brexit and Europe’s Troubled Future, does have a section entitled “Searching for a ‘Grand Strategy’…or Even a New Narrative,” but he fails to cite Barroso’s initiative.
And yet in very different ways, and for very different reasons, all six of these books ultimately argue that yes, a new narrative, or a new European political project, or an institutional revolution, is exactly what Europe needs. It’s not hard to understand why. The continent is plagued by crises that cannot be solved by any one European nation acting on its own: the arrival of millions of migrants, the rise of terrorism, the spread of international corruption, the imbalances created by the single currency, the high youth unemployment in some regions, the challenge from a revanchist Russia.
At the same time, Europe, like the American states before they adopted the Constitution in 1789, still has no political mechanisms that can create joint solutions to any of these problems. A common European foreign and defense policy is still a pipe dream; a common border is difficult to enforce; a common economic policy is still far away. Instead, decisions made unilaterally by the larger states wind up determining policy for the continent, often creating anger in smaller states. Alternatively, decisions are not made at all, in which case the anger comes from the general public.
None of this is entirely new. As Heinrich Geiselberger writes in his introduction to The Great Regression, an anthology of fifteen essays, all of the elements of Europe’s current predicament were predictable and were indeed predicted not only in 2013 but back in the 1990s, an era of great optimism about Europe and more generally about the global economy: “All the risks of globalization that were discerned at the time actually became reality.” At the time it was also hoped that European and international institutions would bring people together in ways that would make solutions possible. Membership in the EU and NATO, as well as dozens of smaller organizations dedicated to everything from the regulation of pharmaceuticals to the promotion of culture, would gradually bring the continent together. Many hoped they would also eventually help integrate Russia and North Africa into Europe as well. But it didn’t happen. Despite those hopes, no collective European identity has emerged in the past two decades, let alone a Western or “cosmopolitan” collective identity that might be capable of formulating a unified political response to any of these problems.
Reading through the current literature on Europe, it isn’t hard to understand why. If the artists, writers, and scientists assigned to the New Narrative could not agree on a way forward, neither can the six books here. And it is notable that although they come from different countries—the UK, the US, Greece, Ukraine, Germany, Bulgaria—the problem isn’t one of national differences. The issues that separate them are temperamental, ideological, and even, one might say, eschatological. Ultimately, they disagree about the endgame: where Europe is going, what it should become, and what it should do in order to get there.
Most of the contributors to The Great Regression at least start from the same vantage point. Geiselberger explains that his book is designed to address not just a crisis but a “neoliberal” crisis, one that he believes has been caused by the ruling economic philosophy of the past three decades, by which he means the philosophy not just of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher but of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and the International Monetary Fund. Some of the arguments here are familiar and can be heard not only on the left but on the right and in the center. Financial markets are too powerful; trade unions are too weak. Globalization has been good for the wealthy in the West, bad for the poor. Deregulation has brought some ugly surprises.
Particularly given the EU’s reputation among conservatives in Britain and the US as a left-leaning institution, some will be surprised to discover that several contributors to The Great Regression believe that despite its redistributive functions and its support for the social welfare state, the EU is part of this same neoliberal problem. Robert Misik argues, for example, that with its uniform regulations and competition laws, the EU makes “practical implementation of left-wing ideas” impossible. Because this is the view held by Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party leader, it’s an important one to reckon with: after all, if Labour had a pro-European instead of a Euroskeptic leader, Britain might well not be leaving European institutions at all.
The trouble is that it isn’t clear what an alternative, more left-wing EU would look like. Should the members of the deeply interconnected European single market be allowed to nationalize industry again? Nationalize banks? Since these are all ideas that failed in the past, why would they work in the present? With surprising pragmatism, Slavoj Žižek suggests that a “left alternative” to the current international trade regime might be a “programme of new and different international agreements—agreements which would establish control of the banks, enforce ecological standards, secure workers’ rights, healthcare services, the protection of sexual and ethnic minorities, etc.” Since this is some of what global trade agreements do already, this is not particularly revolutionary, but at least it is a concrete idea that could be implemented jointly, if there were the will to do so.
Yet even the contributors to The Great Regression are not in total agreement about the causes of the current malaise. Ivan Krastev, for example, is not much interested in the ownership of the means of production but is extremely concerned about migration, immigration, and the “majoritarian” political impulses they have provoked. Both in his Great Regression essay and in his short book After Europe, Krastev argues that the waves of refugees heading for Europe have prompted, in many European countries, not merely economic fears and increasing levels of racism but a kind of “demographic panic.” For his fellow Bulgarians, “the arrival of migrants signals their exit from history, and the popular argument that an aging Europe needs migrants only strengthens the growing sense of existential melancholy…. Is there going to be anyone left to read Bulgarian poetry in one hundred years?”
Krastev also believes that the porous borders within Europe, one of the greatest achievements of the European Union, turn out to have a psychological cost. The educated feel comfortable traveling, living, and working all across the continent. But those who can’t or won’t live abroad harbor suspicions about those who do: “They feel comfortable in their ethnic states and mistrust those whose hearts lie in Paris or London, whose money is in New York or Cyprus, and whose loyalty is to Brussels.” The rural–urban divide that is so clear in the United States thus gains an extra dimension in Europe, where people in small towns and villages have often turned against the EU, while people in cities support it. It’s worth remembering that the Brexit vote in Britain was not only a rich vs. poor vote, it was also an urban vs. rural vote. Large swathes of the well-off English country gentry voted against the European Union and its foreign ways.
The side effects of such discomfort may be dangerous indeed. In response to this challenge, Krastev argues, ethnic and political majorities in several countries have begun to act like threatened minorities themselves. Claiming that they require extraordinary measures to stay in power and “protect the nation” from outside threats and foreign influence, illiberal leaders in Poland and Hungary have tried—the latter successfully, the former thus far less so—to restrict their courts and media.
But the promotion of the interests of “True Poles” or “True Hungarians” over those of supposedly disloyal cosmopolitan elites is not a particularly “Eastern European” phenomenon. Had she won the French presidency, there is no doubt that Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front and the runner-up in the 2016 election, would have tried to do the same for the “True French”—and of course Donald Trump would like to do the same for “Real Americans.” At their worst, the British Brexiteers also sound quite a bit more like English nationalists than the free-traders they claim to be.
Like his fellow authors, Krastev is cautious about offering solutions, beyond the enigmatic observation that Europe’s crises have always done more to pull the continent together than Europe’s institutions. In The End of Europe, James Kirchick also offers dark comfort: “Although there are many arguments in favor of European integration, perhaps the strongest is that the alternative is so much worse.” Kirchick, like Krastev, believes that Europe’s deepest problems are not so much economic as psychological and cultural. But he phrases the problem differently. What Kirchick fears is a “loss of faith in the universal, humanistic values of what might be called the European idea.”
He sees, on the populist right, the same scorn for rule of law and democratic norms that Krastev has observed. In a chapter on Hungary he quotes at length Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s famous oration in praise of “illiberal democracy,” during which he disparaged the “divisive” nature of democracy and advocated, instead, the emergence of a “great governing party…a central field of force, which will be able to articulate the national issues…without the constantly ongoing wrangling.”
But Kirchick also sees dangers coming from an ideologically rigid left that has sought to ignore the problems caused by the immigration wave, including the dangerous plague of Islamic terrorism and, in some places, a rise in crime. He excoriates the “constricted political discourse in which decent, ordinary people are told not only that plainly visible social phenomena don’t exist but also that voicing concerns about these allegedly nonexistent phenomena is racist.” Along those same lines, he worries that the entire debate about immigration will become a partisan, bifurcated battle between the genuinely racist far right and a “multicultural” left that can’t bring itself to address the public’s legitimate (or even illegitimate) desire for more security.
Kirchick notes that these divisions have been deliberately exacerbated by an outside force: Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has now defined the EU, alongside the US, as its most important enemy. Russia dislikes the EU because it gives small European countries more clout in their dealings with Moscow—the EU can, for example, prevent the creation of Russian gas monopolies in Eastern Europe. Russia also dislikes the EU because it offers a clear ideological alternative to corrupt oligarchy. Ukrainians protesting against their pro-Moscow government in 2014 waved the EU flag because they believed it stood for the rule of law, anticorruption, democracy, and free speech. In response, Putin, whose worst nightmare is the emergence of precisely that sort of crowd in Russia, began energetically backing politicians and political parties on both the far left and the far right of the European political spectrum, precisely in order to undermine the European project from within.
This subject takes us into the realm of expertise of Anton Shekhovtsov, who has been tracking and cataloguing the Russian relationship with the European far right for many years. In Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir, Shekhovtsov lays out the historical background of the relationship, going back to the Soviet era. He argues that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin and groups loyal to it “dramatically stepped up active measures and other subversive activities inside the West.” In a different era, this support might not have mattered. But thanks to the economic shifts and the migration/immigration turmoil described above, extremism of all kinds was already on the rise in Europe, just at the moment when Russia began to put serious resources into supporting it.
That support now takes a number of forms, ranging from Russia’s outright, openly acknowledged funding for Le Pen’s presidential campaign to more secretive attempts to manipulate public opinion using online hacking, trolls, and bots. These techniques, first used in European elections, were repeated in the US in 2016 to great effect. In a number of European countries, including Italy and Germany, Russia has made great inroads into mainstream politics as well, by establishing economic relationships with powerful companies and buying the services of influential politicians, among them the former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. But again, Shekhovtsov’s goal is not to find solutions but rather to lay out the parameters of a problem that few really understand.
For a wider range of possible solutions and policy proposals, the reader must turn back to the books by Giles Merritt and Loukas Tsoukalis, both of which are far more Brussels-centric, policy wonkish, pragmatic, and thus somewhat harder to read than the others. These focus on the EU as an institution, and they offer laundry lists of policy recommendations. Merritt calls for, among other things, an EU-wide program to modernize infrastructure, a larger community budget, a more activist central bank. Tsoukalis wants policies that encourage social cohesion, such as a European unemployment scheme. Both men want, as many others do, reform to the EU’s democratic institutions. Suggested changes to the EU’s parliament have been under discussion for years, including changing its composition to include members of national parliaments, or electing candidates from multinational constituencies. So far, all such projects have been halted by inertia.
Both men also want, again like many others, a more robust EU foreign policy, one that would give Europe a voice in the world commensurate with its size and economic strength. Indeed, it is possible to argue that Europe’s failure to have a foreign policy is the source of many of its problems. A Europe that could stand up to Russia would not be so easily manipulated by Russian disinformation. A Europe capable of ending the civil wars in Libya and Syria, instead of pretending they weren’t happening, wouldn’t have a refugee crisis on the current scale at all.
The trouble with all of these ideas is that they come back to the problem that I began with: to push through parliamentary reform, to construct, finally, a real European army, to build support for a larger budget or central bank, Europe needs a set of institutions to which people feel loyal and attached. To provide small European nations with the confidence they need to thrive in a globalized world; to inspire enough growth to keep people thriving in rural Bulgaria or Spain; to create a real border agency that makes people feel secure; to persuade southern Europeans to take the Russian threat seriously and Eastern Europeans to take the refugee crisis seriously—all of this requires a level of political energy that always seems to be missing at the European level, and even, in many European countries, at the national level too.
Kirchick wants a “renewal of the muscular liberal center.” Tsoukalis writes that “Europe needs a game changer, one of those big initiatives that sometimes in history succeeds in radically transforming the scene.” Merritt wants to “persuade public opinion that we must rethink our comfortable and cherished assumptions about Europe’s privileged place in the world,” and start fighting harder to be heard. In short, Europe needs a narrative.
It could be, of course, that a “game changer” is just around the corner. Most of these books were published before the latest round of European elections, and some of them seem prematurely gloomy. A general backlash against Brexit and widespread revulsion at President Trump have already reduced support for the anti-European far right in Austria and the Netherlands. The unexpected triumph of Emmanuel Macron, the very incarnation of muscular liberalism, in an election in one of Europe’s most important countries has set off a wave of speculation: Are there other Macrons waiting in the wings, perhaps in Poland or Italy, who could pull off the same trick?
The likely victory of Angela Merkel in Germany also changes the Franco-German relationship from a tired cliché into something dynamic. Different though they are in character and background—portraits of them together look like an allegorical painting, “Youth Encounters Experience”—both Merkel and Macron are committed to the European Union, to the political center, and perhaps, it has been hinted, to major reforms. The notion of a European finance minister who could begin to coordinate the continent’s economic policy in a meaningful way has been discussed; so has a European army. If Merkel and Macron do push for those major reforms, they are staking everything on a proposition that hasn’t been tested: namely, that what people really hate about Europe isn’t that it usurps national power, but that it seems powerless.
And if Merkel and Macron disappoint? One European diplomat of my acquaintance likes to compare Europe and the US to the Western and Eastern halves of the old Roman Empire. The West imploded, with drama, violence and crazy Caesars; the Byzantine East lingered on, bureaucratic, stodgy, and predictable, for many centuries. It’s not exactly an optimistic precedent for Europeans, but it’s a comforting one.