Oddly enough, the most visionary formulation of what we Europeans have tried to achieve on our own continent comes from an American president who deplored the “vision thing.” “Let Europe be whole and free,” declared George H.W. Bush in the German city of Mainz in May 1989.1 He described “growing political freedom in the east, a Berlin without barriers, a cleaner environment, [and] a less militarized Europe” as “the foundation of our larger vision: a Europe that is free and at peace with itself.”
So the goal is threefold: whole, free, and at peace. How has Europe done against those benchmarks in the more than thirty years since 1989, which also happens to be roughly half the life of The New York Review? Is the vision coming closer or receding? What would it take for Europe to advance further toward it?
Europe’s Post-Wall Era
Europe’s post-Wall era is a tale of two halves. Painting with a broad brush, we can characterize the period from 1989 to 2007 as one of extraordinary progress. Political freedom spread across Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. Germany was united. Soviet troops withdrew. New democracies joined the European Union and NATO. In 1989 what was then still called the European Community had just twelve members and NATO had sixteen. By 2007 the EU (into which the European Community was transformed by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty) had twenty-seven members and NATO twenty-six. There had never been a time when so many European countries were sovereign, democratic, legally equal members of the same security, political, and economic communities. As a European citizen, you could fly from one end of the continent almost to the other—from Lisbon to Tallinn, from Helsinki to Athens—without needing to show a passport. Many of the countries along the way shared a single currency, the euro. Here was an unprecedentedly large, single European space enjoying an unprecedented level of peace and freedom.
To be sure, this was also a period that saw five wars in the former Yugoslavia, including the most brutal, genocidal one in Bosnia. But the last of these wars, in Macedonia, was over by the end of 2001. These two decades also saw the September 11 attacks on the United States. Yet with hindsight September 11, 2001, which was a major turning point in Middle Eastern and US history, does not appear to have been one in European history. The consequences of the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to the radicalization of some of the Islamist terrorists who subsequently attacked European capitals such as London, Madrid, Paris, and Berlin, but the process of radicalization had deep roots in Europe itself, especially among second-generation European Muslims.
The crucial European turning point came in 2008. Two separate but almost simultaneous developments—Vladimir Putin’s military occupation of two large areas of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in August and the eruption of the global financial crisis with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September—began a downward turn that continued throughout the second half of the post-Wall period. The financial crisis segued into a “Great Recession” in many European countries. It also provoked the Eurozone crisis that started in 2010, hitting Southern European countries such as Greece especially hard. Also in 2010 Viktor Orbán started demolishing democracy in Hungary. In 2014 Putin followed his Georgian aggression with the annexation of Crimea and the beginning, in eastern Ukraine, of the Russo-Ukrainian War.
The refugee crisis that began in 2015 prompted a sharp rise in support for hard-right nationalist-populist parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and Marine le Pen’s Front National in France. In Poland, the Law and Justice party, having won both the country’s presidency and an absolute majority in parliament, set about following Orbán’s example to erode Poland’s fragile democracy. In 2016 came the Brexit referendum, which resulted in Britain leaving the EU, and then the election of Donald Trump as US president, which was also a significant moment in European history. The Covid pandemic struck in 2020, with economic, social, and psychological consequences that are still becoming apparent. This cascade of crises reached its lowest point (so far) with Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
It would require another essay to analyze all the many varieties of hubris that contributed to this downward turn after 2008, but it’s worth highlighting one fundamental mistake in the way many Europeans (and Americans) came to view our recent history. Put most simply, this was the fallacy of extrapolation. We saw the way things had gone for nearly two decades after 1989 and somehow assumed they would continue in that direction, albeit with setbacks along the way. We contemplated one of the most nonlinear events in modern history—the fall of the Wall and the peaceful end of the Soviet empire—and made a linear projection forward from it. We took history with a small h, history as it really happens—always a product of the interaction between deep structures and processes, on the one hand, and contingency, conjuncture, collective will, and individual leadership on the other—and misconstrued it as History with a capital H, a Hegelian process of inevitable progress toward freedom. But freedom is not a process. It’s a constant struggle. The point is perfectly captured in the Ukrainian word volia, which means freedom but also the will to fight for it.
As the first half of the post-Wall period had not all been peace and progress, so the second half was not all conflict and regress. The European Union did not merely survive what one of its leaders dubbed its “polycrisis,” despite losing one member state (Britain) and another (Hungary) ceasing to be a democracy; in some respects it emerged stronger. Responding to the economic impact of the pandemic, the EU did what it should have done in response to the Eurozone crisis and launched a €750 billion financial support program called NextGenerationEU, which finally broke with two taboos that had been stubbornly upheld by Northern European creditor states such as Germany. It effectively mutualized some European debt, since the European Commission was authorized to borrow money on behalf of the entire EU, and it dispersed more than half that money as grants, not merely loans. The EU has also proved remarkably united and decisive in the face of the full-scale war in Ukraine.
Although it’s too soon to judge this last event in proper historical perspective, it seems plausible to suggest that February 24, 2022, marks the end of the post-Wall period that began on November 9, 1989. The scale and global implications of the war in Ukraine, and the way it compels Europeans to revise some of their most treasured post-1989 assumptions, mean that we have entered a new era, whose character and name no one yet knows. So where does Europe stand today? At peace? Free? Whole?
Europe is not at peace. In Ukraine we have the largest war in Europe since 1945. “Never again!” Europeans cried in 1945, after the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. That was postwar Europe’s first commandment. Yet Southern Europe labored under fascist dictatorships until the 1970s, while the eastern half of the continent continued to experience invasions and violent repression until 1989. After the end of the cold war, Europe settled down to be a continent of Kantian perpetual peace. Almost immediately, war erupted in the former Yugoslavia. Following the massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995, Europeans again said, “Never again!” Now it has happened yet again. This is the “never” that seemingly never comes.
When I started writing my book Homelands: A Personal History of Europe five years ago, I thought that in order to bring home to young Europeans the horrors against which postwar Europe has defined itself, I must hurry to track down some of the last surviving elderly Europeans with personal memories of the hell that was Europe during World War II. So I did, in Germany, France, and Poland. But today all you need do to experience such horrors firsthand is take a train into Ukraine from the southeastern Polish town of Przemyśl. Departure time 2023, arrival 1943.
In Bucha, the commuter town northwest of Kyiv whose name has become synonymous with Russian atrocities in Ukraine, I met an elderly woman whose nephew had been murdered by the occupying Russian forces simply because he had some photos of destroyed Russian tanks on his phone. In Borodyanka I contemplated a statue of Ukraine’s great nineteenth-century poet Taras Shevchenko, shot several times through his metal head by Russian soldiers. The intention of the Russian occupation is genocidal. Thousands of Ukrainian children have been separated from their parents and forcibly deported to Russia, where they are to be raised as Russians. In March 2023 the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, holding him directly responsible for this war crime.
I will never forget an evening conversation in Lviv with Yevhen Hulevych, a tall, lean, handsome cultural critic who had volunteered to serve in the Ukrainian army after the full-scale invasion. He had twice been wounded, the second time in the grueling infantry campaign to liberate Kherson, but when we met he was preparing to return to the front yet again. Inexperienced recruits would have need of him, he explained; his combat experience could save lives. A few weeks later he lost his own life to a Russian sniper’s bullet in the blood-soaked mud around Bakhmut, Ukraine’s Passchendaele.2 I think often of Yevhen.
Casualty figures in this war are difficult to establish, but in August US officials estimated that the total number killed and wounded was nearing 500,000: some 120,000 dead and 170,000–180,000 wounded on the Russian side; perhaps 70,000 dead and 100,000–120,000 wounded on the Ukrainian side. The number of war dead of this country of no more than 40 million people in just one and a half years thus already exceeds the US fatalities of 58,000 in nearly two decades of war in Vietnam. In a recent opinion poll, four out of every five Ukrainians said that someone among their close family or friends has been killed or injured. And there is no end in sight.
Is Europe itself at war? Many people in Eastern Europe would say yes; most in Western Europe would say no. Europe is not at war in the way it was in 1943, when most European countries were direct parties to the conflict; but neither is Europe at peace in the way it was in 2003. Many European countries are supporting Ukraine’s war effort with weapons, ammunition, training, and money. And as in 1943, the only way forward to a lasting peace is through victory in war.
A cease-fire or peace agreement now, effectively compelling Ukraine to sacrifice territory the size of a small European country, would be a recipe for future conflict, not just in Europe but also in Asia, since President Xi Jinping of China might reasonably conclude that armed aggression pays. Yesterday Crimea, tomorrow Taiwan. A nuclear-armed Russia cannot be reduced to “unconditional surrender,” like Germany in 1945. But an outcome in which Russia is forced to give up the Ukrainian territory it has secured by armed aggression is still attainable and would be the only sure foundation for a durable peace.
To achieve this, two things are necessary, one tangible and one intangible. European countries need to abandon the post-Wall illusion that peace can be secured entirely by nonmilitary means, tangibly increase their defense expenditures, make credible forward deployments on NATO’s eastern frontier, gear up their defense industries to supply Ukraine’s almost World War II–level need for weapons and ammunition, and be prepared militarily and economically for the long haul. Barring miracles, on the eightieth anniversary of the 1944 D-Day landings next June 6, the Russo-Ukrainian War will still be grinding on.
The intangible essential is the will to fight for freedom. Ukrainians pose the question of courage in ways that can make Western Europeans quite uncomfortable. In a meeting with one of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s closest aides in the heavily sandbagged presidential palace in Kyiv last July, a French member of our fact-finding mission started a question with the words “Aren’t you afraid that…?” “Well, first of all,” Zelensky’s aide shot back, “we’re not afraid of anything.” The Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Yermolenko talks of a “warrior spirit” that he finds present in Ukraine and absent in the West. The spirit of Achilles. In a word: volia.
What would it mean for Europe to be free? Perhaps most obviously, that it would be a continent of free countries. Two distinct although related things are implied by the term “free country”: a country that is independent from foreign domination and whose citizens enjoy individual liberty at home.
At first glance, Europe does well on this count, compared both with its own past and with other continents today. According to Freedom House, Europe has two fifths of the world’s free countries: thirty-four out of eighty-four in 2023. Many of these European states are small, so they are home to only 7 percent of the world’s population, but many are also rich, so they comprise 17 percent of global GDP.
Some Euroskeptic populists maintain that their homelands are not free because membership in the EU deprives them of true independence. They point to the fact that European law takes precedence over national law. In post-Communist countries like Poland, they say, “Yesterday Moscow, today Brussels!” Thanks to an initiative of its own Euroskeptics, Britain has just conclusively disproved this narrative of vassalage by freely leaving the EU following a democratic national vote.3
Such a broadly positive picture of European freedom must, however, be qualified in several ways. Among the twenty-seven member states of the EU, there is one, Hungary, that Freedom House classifies as only “partly free.” As early as 2013, observing Orbán’s dismantling of its fragile new democracy, the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller asked, “Can a dictatorship be a member of the EU?” Hungary is not yet a full-blown dictatorship in the sense that Putin’s Russia is, but it’s certainly no longer a liberal democracy. Political scientists characterize its political system as competitive or electoral authoritarianism. Although EU membership has in some respects constrained Orbán’s neoauthoritarian regime, it has also greatly facilitated its consolidation—for example, through the billions of euros in EU funds that he has used to strengthen his power base. If a crucial Polish election on October 15 goes the wrong way, Poland may follow Hungary down the path from its current condition of illiberal democracy (that is, a liberal democracy in an advanced state of decay) to soft authoritarianism—or descend into furious disorder.
Even inside the twenty-six EU member states that Freedom House still comfortably classes as free, that “free” is an aggregate of relatively narrow criteria of “negative liberty,” defined by a checklist of political rights and civil liberties.4 But are all citizens of these countries really free?
A more ambitious definition of individual liberty argues, against the minimalist version of negative liberty associated with thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin, that certain minimum enabling conditions have to be fulfilled for someone meaningfully to be described as free. Malnourished, homeless, illiterate children are not free, even if they live in what Freedom House characterizes as a free country. This account of liberty is present already among Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four freedoms: “freedom from want.” It is powerfully articulated in the “capabilities approach” of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen. It speaks through the work of Ronald Dworkin, the Anglo-American liberal thinker most closely associated with The New York Review, who insisted that the heart of liberalism must be “equal respect and concern” for every member of a given political community. It appears, in yet another variant, in the work of the German-British social thinker Ralf Dahrendorf, who argued that liberalism, properly understood, requires a “common floor.” There must, he explained, be a “common starting point” of housing, health care, education, and the availability of meaningful work.
These more egalitarian versions of liberalism were neglected in much of Europe during the post-Wall era, as liberalism was reduced almost to the single dimension of economic liberalism. As a result, even in those countries that fulfill the most demanding criteria of political liberty, millions of individual Europeans are significantly less free than others in those same societies. A man of sixty-five living in Richmond upon Thames, a leafy corner of southwestern London, can on average expect to enjoy another 13.7 years of healthy life, which is more than twice the 6.4 years that his counterpart can expect in the poor eastern borough of Newham, which has a high proportion of people with a migration background. You can’t be free if you are dead. Nearly one out of every four children in the EU is classified as being at risk of poverty. Minorities—ethnic, cultural, religious, and of sexual orientation—are generally overrepresented among the less free. By contrast, at the most privileged end of European societies we have something close to a plutocracy, or what has been called, with nice irony, “hereditary meritocracy.” A fundamental reform of Europe’s liberal democratic capitalist societies is therefore required before we can say that even this most fortunate part of Europe is truly free.5
Meanwhile, in Southeastern Europe outside the EU there are several more countries, including Bosnia, Montenegro, and Serbia, that Freedom House categorizes as only “partly free.” Beyond that, there are European countries such as Belarus that are neither externally nor internally free. A wider penumbra includes countries that have geographical, historical, and cultural claims to be at least partly European but are domestically unfree (e.g., Russia) or only partly free (e.g., Turkey). This takes us to the most elusive concept in our European trinity: “whole.”
What does “whole” mean when applied to Europe? Back in 1989, that was clear. It meant overcoming the cold war division of Europe represented by the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. “To heal Europe’s tragic division,” Bush explained in Mainz, was “to help Europe become whole and free.” What followed over the next eighteen years, until 2007, was an extraordinary leap forward in European unification and in the enlargement of the geopolitical West. But after 2008 that process stalled. Croatia slipped into the EU and NATO; Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia into NATO; but that was it. Turkey was accepted as a candidate for EU membership as long ago as 1999, North Macedonia in 2005; they’re both still waiting.
In 2005, inspired by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, I pressed the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, to state publicly that the European Union wanted Ukraine to become a member one day.6 “If I did that,” he replied, “I would immediately be slapped down by two major member states.” He meant France and Germany. Asked about a possible Ukrainian candidacy, a commission spokesperson observed, “There will first have to be a discussion of whether a country is European.” Intra-European orientalism—that age-old tendency for Western Europeans to consider Eastern Europeans either less European or not European at all—could not have been more clearly expressed. (To add insult to injury, the spokesperson was British.)
What a difference a war makes. Today the European Union has accepted Ukraine and Moldova as candidates for membership, is making positive signals toward Georgia, and has injected new energy into relations with countries in the western Balkans that member states such as Germany and Austria insist must not be left behind. Negotiations with Ukraine will probably start early next year. Charles Michel, president of the European Council, has said the EU should aim to take in new members by 2030. This renewed seriousness about enlargement is exemplified by a debate about reforming the EU’s institutions and decision-making practices, so that a union of thirty-six members could continue to function effectively. As with all earlier attempts at creating a larger European political community, the key will be to find the right balance between unity and diversity.
With EU members Finland and Sweden having decided to join NATO in response to the full-scale war in Ukraine, the EU and NATO are now more closely aligned than ever before. For Ukraine, security is a precondition for the reconstruction and reforms without which it will not be ready for EU membership. The politics of an American presidential election year may unfortunately hinder Ukraine being invited to join NATO at the alliance’s seventy-fifth anniversary summit in Washington next July, but only NATO membership will ultimately provide that security. Given that Ukraine is one of the largest and poorest countries in Europe, and that the smaller countries in prospect, from ethnically divided Bosnia to partly Russian-occupied Georgia, have intricate and intractable problems of their own, this is work for at least a decade.
Yet even if these extraordinary ambitions are realized, bringing more European countries than ever before into one and the same political and security communities, Europe will still not be “whole.” For Europe doesn’t end at any clear line—except possibly the North Pole, where it ends at a point. In all other directions, Europe merely fades away: across the vast expanse of Russia, somewhere between St. Petersburg and Vladivostok; across Turkey, somewhere between Istanbul and the Iranian frontier; across the Mediterranean, that mare nostrum (our sea) which, with its entire coastline, was for the ancient Greeks and Romans a single civilizational space; and across the Atlantic. “Since Europe is an idea as much as a place,” said President Bill Clinton on accepting the Charlemagne Prize in 2000, “America also is a part of Europe.” For many years, The New York Review could reasonably claim to be the leading pan-European intellectual review. And Canada would be an ideal member of the EU.
Yet if Europe is everywhere it’s nowhere. To be an effective protector of the interests and values of Europeans, a European political or security community must be bounded. Its boundary will not be a line between unambiguously Europe and unambiguously Not-Europe, because there is no such line. The question therefore becomes not whether there is a border but the character of that border.
The answer being given by today’s Europe is truly shocking when measured against the hopes of 1989. That year was all about bringing down walls, lifting barriers, cutting barbed wire, opening frontiers. One of the greatest achievements of the first half of the post-Wall era was freedom of movement. Inside the EU, European citizens could now choose to work, study, and live in any other member state. Across the larger Schengen area, a wider group of Europeans could travel freely, without frontier controls. Yet in recent years, especially since the refugee crisis of 2015, Europe has been building new walls, erecting new fences, and closing external frontiers even as—and partly because—it has opened internal ones.
In 1989 we took down an Iron Curtain through the center of Europe. In 2023 we are erecting a new Iron Curtain around the periphery of an arbitrarily defined European space. On land, it consists of actual fences, such as the one Hungary has erected on its frontier with Serbia, and accompanying fortifications. At sea, it consists of naval patrols, some of which have pushed back migrant boats into non-European territorial waters, in contravention of international humanitarian law. It also involves paying neighboring authoritarian governments, whether in Turkey, Libya, or Morocco, to keep back millions of migrants who wish to come to Europe from Africa and the wider Middle East. Pope Francis has accurately described the Libyan detention camps to which some of these would-be migrants have been returned as “places of torture and ignoble slavery.”
This may not appear to be an ethical dilemma for a nativist, particularist version of European values, such as that championed by Orbán or Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, but it certainly is for anyone who embraces the liberal, universalist version of European values enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. It also highlights a problem with theories of modern liberalism that, even in the versions proposed by egalitarian liberals such as Dworkin and Dahrendorf, incline to operate in the framework of an idealized nation-state. Within the boundaries of that hypothetical state, “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all,” to quote John Rawls. To achieve that, says Dahrendorf, there should be “economic growth and citizenship rights for all.” But what about the person just across the frontier, in Serbia, or Turkey, or Morocco, or Libya? When I visited the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta, a Spanish woman of Moroccan origin who grew up in a neighborhood very close to the formidable EU-funded fence separating Ceuta from Morocco told me, “If I’d been born just a few meters away, I would have a completely different life.”
One possible answer is suggested by Dahrendorf: economic growth. Development should reduce the economic gulf between the African and European sides of this new Iron Curtain, offering more life chances at home to the now 830 million Africans under the age of twenty-five. (For comparison, the total population of the EU is 450 million.) There is, however, scant evidence of European leaders trying to persuade their electorates of the wisdom of redoubling Europe’s efforts to support development to the continent’s south as well as in its east. The history of foreign aid suggests that it is difficult to help states that are not themselves effectively fostering development. And growing prosperity may increase rather than decrease migration in the short to medium term.
Even if all these obstacles were to be overcome, development on that scale, however ecologically “sustainable” its theoretical design, would put a further burden on a tortured planet—another important dimension of “whole.”7 It would probably drive up global average temperatures that this July, for the first recorded month ever, exceeded the UN-endorsed climate change ceiling of 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels. Young Europeans are passionate about addressing the climate emergency, and the EU is committed to a target of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030. Yet there is no sign that the majority of European voters are prepared to make the sacrifices in their own living standards that might permit the lives of others to be uplifted in a sustainable way.
Here we come to a final contrast with 1989. Back then, external circumstances were extremely favorable to a Europe setting out to be “whole and free.” Now they are unfavorable. Russia is waging a full-scale war to prevent the achievement of precisely this goal. China is a Leninist capitalist superpower, a formidable competitor to both Europe and the United States. Its leader, Xi Jinping, is hungrily eyeing Taiwan, as Putin once eyed Crimea. And China is just one in a wide array of great and middle powers, including India, Turkey, Brazil, and South Africa, that are quite happy to do business with Putin’s Russia, even as it wages a brutal war of recolonization in Ukraine. The US does not have the preeminent hard power, let alone the abundant soft power, it projected thirty years ago. Few if any Europeans now look to the US as a model of politics or society. All tremble at the prospect of a second Trump presidency. Artificial intelligence will exacerbate the widespread misinformation already facilitated by the Internet. Over everything hangs the existential risk of planetary overheating. In the long run, these external challenges may constitute a greater threat to the pursuit of a Europe whole and free than any of the continent’s internal ones.
All hill-walkers know the experience of slogging up a long, steep hillside toward what looks like a clear horizon, only to face a dip and then an even higher ascent beyond. This is where Europeans stand today. We have made extraordinary progress, especially in the first half of the post-Wall period. If you doubt this, just visit Estonia, a country that did not even exist on the political map of Europe in 1989, although it always continued to exist in the hearts and minds of its people. Today Estonia is a confident, prosperous democracy, secure in the EU and NATO, despite its proximity to a revanchist Russia, and third in the world on the Human Freedom Index. But now we have an even larger mountain to climb before we can seriously talk of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.
The challenge is daunting, but we can take counsel and courage from Václav Havel, one of the greatest Europeans of this period (and a major figure in the history of The New York Review), who in dark times wrote, “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.” Hope is
an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed…. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
Defending, improving, and extending a free Europe, including a free Ukraine, makes sense. It’s a cause worthy of hope.
—October 4, 2023
The phrase was actually coined by a now forgotten American diplomat named Harvey Sicherman. ↩
See my “Ukraine in Our Future,” The New York Review, February 23, 2023. It was in response to this article that a writer in Lviv informed me of Yevhen’s death. ↩
Europe’s nationalist populists usually don’t complain about NATO membership, although its Article 5 treaty commitment—an obligation to go to war in defense of another member country—is as significant a constraint on sovereignty as any that derive from EU membership. ↩
The Human Freedom Index, copublished by the Fraser and Cato Institutes, adds measurements of economic freedom but remains firmly within the negative liberty framing. ↩
For much more on this, see my “The Future of Liberalism,” Prospect, January–February 2021. Samuel Moyn attributes this failing to the legacy of “cold war liberalism,” but Dworkin and Dahrendorf were cold war liberals. ↩
See Timothy Garton Ash and Timothy Snyder, “The Orange Revolution,” The New York Review, April 28, 2005. ↩
It’s interesting to note that in his 1989 “Europe whole and free” speech, Bush was already sounding the alarm about damage to the environment. ↩