Ivan Krastev: Referendums cannot negotiate with each other

Ivan Krastev [Heinrich Böll Foundation].

It is impossible that 20% of the Dutch voters should hold hostage a common EU policy. The EU created a gifted class of intellectuals and bureaucrats and others, but they lack genuine political experience, Ivan Krastev told EURACTIV Slovakia in an exclusive interview.

Ivan Krastev is a polictical scientist, the Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, and permanent fellow at the IWM, Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna.

He spoke to EURACTIV Slovakia’s Chief Editor Zuzana Gabrizova on the occasion of the Globsec forum in Bratislava.

In an interview for the Aspen review you said that what is lacking these days in our societies is “honest reformism”, meaning there are no people who believe that liberal democracy is the best possible system, while at the same time understand how many things need to be changed. Which things do you believe need to be reformed most urgently?

Let’s have a look at the bigger argument, why I believe it is a difficult time for reformism. There was this famous German-American economist Albert Hirschman who in 1970 wrote book called “Exit, Voice and Loyalty.”

He said when somebody sees a dysfunctional organisation or government, basically he can react in two different manners. One is by simply leaving – by exit. This is what we normally do as consumers. If I do not like a certain restaurant, I am not trying to reform it, I am going to another restaurant. By not going there any more I am sending the message. Then there are certain organisations that cannot be left so easily. With these type of things we try to really reform it, try to come up with ideas, we criticize, we try to push people to make this or that changes. What is happening globally, it is not only in Europe, is that citizens and voters are much more now participating in politics in the way they are behaving as consumers.

For example before changing your party vote was almost as difficult as changing your church. There was so much ideological and cultural commitment, almost kind of small society. Before deciding to vote for another party you were least going to make an effort to change it, to improve it’s the work, to do something that is closer to you. Leaving the party was almost like leaving a family, it was a tragedy. Not any more, especially if you see the young people.

The level of voting for different party in very different elections is something which is much more the norm, than being the exception. This is a totally different view of democracy and it creates, in my view, the following problem.

We want to change the EU because many people are starting to understand that in its current form the trust of the public has been lost in many places. But our democracies are very much organised on the national level. Many things which otherwise make sense as reform of national democracy can lead to a major dysfunctionalities and paralysis of the Union.

Can you give an example?

As a result of this growing distrust towards the political elites in many countries, for good reasons, people are deciding to go for referendum and other forms of direct democracy. Nothing wrong with this, but then what we have is the Dutch referendum on Ukraine, a referendum in which nobody cares about Ukraine and the association agreement which nobody has ever read – this was just a way to send a signal. You are sending a signal, you have a referendum that takes the common policy of the EU. For good or bad, this is important, I do not have a position on the Ukrainian association agreement, I have a huge position on the fact that it is impossible that 20 % of the Dutch voters should take hostage a common policy. Tomorrow it is going to be with the migration policy, the day after tomorrow it is going to be some of the economic policies. We are going to be turned from kind of the union of governments into the union of referendums. Do you know what? Referendums cannot negotiate with each other.

We created a political dynamics which made the reforms of the EU impossible in a honest way, the only way to reform is basically to try to manipulate different situations. The EU is accused of being elitist but it is becoming even more elitist because this is the only level on which you can have any agreement on a pan-European level. And this is a huge story. Some of the things that the people claim that are going to save the EU are the same that are making the survival of the EU in its present form much more difficult.

Anything else besides referendums?

Transparency. I remember a colleague of mine, extremely fine lady, saying that what we should show live is the discussions in the European Council. If this is going to happen that is the end. From this point of view I believe that the biggest story is that we have the language of democracy which talks participation and transparency and we have the EU which is very much based on the idea that we are democracies, but if we make participation and transparency the two pillars on which we are going to reform the EU we are going to destroy it.

It is very difficult to say, because people are saying that isn’t the EU about democracy? It is, but national democracies. And when we say there is a problem with democracy at the level of European Union. Aren´t there problems with democracy at the national level? Aren´t national democracy more trusted by the people?

That differs from country by country.

There is one important change. If you go back 10-15 years, you are going to see two sources of legitimacy of the EU. In countries like Germany, Sweden, basically the North, always the national governments were much more trusted that Brussels, we only trust Brussels to the extent that we trust our national governments have influence there.

In countries like Greece, Bulgaria and Brussels in general the trust in the EU was higher. The logic was, we do not know what the people in Brussels are doing but they cannot be as corrupt as ours. This profoundly changed not so much with the economic crisis but with the migrant crisis. Because when it comes to the refugees, the idea was that probably our government is incompetent and corrupt but that they care more about us than those in Brussels. At the same time those in Germany and others they do not have the feeling that their government is influential enough in Brussels. So they also start to lose trust in the Commission and in the EU.

This is a new situation and I do believe that one of the bigger problems that Europe is facing is not simply what we are doing but how we are justifying our policies. We lost the language because what we love and what we hate is one and the same thing. Open borders. In Bulgaria 25 years after 1989 we had a public opinion poll about what people perceive as good and bad in these years. The Bulgarian public is quite critical – and for good reasons [because] not so much has been achieved. There was one thing about which everyone was very positive, opening of the borders. Before, opening of the borders means that we can get out, now it means that the others can get in. And the fact that we have a language that keeps this things together makes it so difficult for the reform to take place.

Has the negative reaction from central European countries towards the burden sharing measures proposed by the Commission in the context of refugee crisis come as a surprise to you?

The real deal and the real problem that central European governments are facing was there was a consensus at the level of societies which was strongly anti-refugee, from this point this was one of those cases which governments spoke on behalf of their societies. To claim that the governments manipulated something is simply not true. The problem was that the governments had to decide between their relations with Germany and basically how they are going to be perceived. I do believe that one of the things that happened was that many of the governments in the region over the years developed a model and Hungary is a classical example in which political model is sustained by two opposite things – European funds and anti-European rhetoric. In order to basically function you need both.

I am not uncritical to the way the Germans conducted their policies and the way they communicated, that they did not talk to anybody. But people are underestimating the fact that if Germany had done nothing. Imagine that for a while. It means that Greece and Italy were going to be over. We are going to have two countries most hit by the economic crisis becoming totally dysfunctional because the pressure on them is going to be incredible and others are not going to share anything with them, so they will try to close their borders and then they you are going to end up with half a million in Greece, not in Germany. Would Greece deal with this? I am very sceptical.

I believe that the German government understood that the legitimacy of Germany as a leader of the EU comes from the fact that this time, unlike in the case of the financial crisis, they should deal with the crisis within Germany and that the others can rely on Germany in the moment of the crisis. The German public opinion at this moment was positive with the solidarity towards the migrants and German chancellor decided to frame this as an opportunity.

Western and Eastern European countries have different history and their view of the world is different. For many East European countries there is one positive thing that happened after WWII and the communist period and this was the ethnic homogenisation.

Before the war, one-third of the population of Poland were non-Poles – Germans, Jews, and Ukrainians. Now 98 % are Poles. This type of ethnic homogeneity was perceived as a major asset – to live among your own. So from this point what people describe as a crisis of solidarity in the EU, I am much more going to define as the clash of solidarities. This is the solidarity with your own ethnic community clashing with the solidarity on the European level. What many people in Central and Eastern Europe are not ready to recognize is that if we are only staying at the level of ethnic solidarity then we should not expect from some of the Western countries to have solidarity with us. This is the major story and this is the part of the story that was not discussed. If in Bulgaria the fact that we are part of the EU is totally obvious, for many outside Bulgaria this is not obvious.

On the other side, there are certain interesting political developments that I find much more intriguing and interesting. Slovakia is the case in part. The government decided that this tough position with respect to Europe, with respect to the refugees is going to help them in the elections. The most important message that came out of Slovakia was that when mainstream governing parties start to talk like the radical parties it does not mean that they are going to get the votes of the radical parties, it means that the radical parties are going to get some votes of the mainstream parties.

But don’t you think that the rise of extremism is a part of a wider distrust towards the political-economic system?

Sure. The things are very real. First of all you have real economic problems, you have real losers who have been told all the time that everything is a win-win game. Even if it is, probably not in their lifetime. Secondly you have demographic fears. These are small ageing societies which see a world without Europeans basically. They start to fear the future because we cannot see our ethnic communities but also Europe how is it going to function in this bigger world. And also world that is slightly culturally different than us. I am not talking about Islam. I am talking about many things. From this point the fears of the people are real. It is not that they are populists leaders who are trying to manipulate them, they represent them in a certain way.

One of the paradoxes with the EU (and this may come as a surprise for you), is the fact that our countries are in the EU makes slightly easier for some of the extreme parties to get votes. Because people believe that even if these radical elements are going to get the political representation we should not fear much because is the EU that is going to take care. Which is not the case, because normally with the extreme parties there is a common sense that people fear extreme options, nevermind from what kind of extremes. Especially with the aging society, older people do not like extremes, especially when they are voting they are much more careful.

But the EU and the way that we have been portraying it looks like a kind of a safety net against any type of political radicalism. Many people use the voting for these parties as signalling. But the signal is so strong, that these parties are starting to govern and, even not the most radical of them, they come with an agenda, that starts to have a huge impact on society, for example now the abortion debate in Poland.

The other thing that I know from the data from Bulgaria – what happened as a result from the type of the economy that we have and the new technologies it’s very difficult to talk about Bulgarian society. There are societies which live parallel to each other but they share little. They do not share values, they do not share lifestyles, they do not talk to each other, and they do not meet each other. All these things that we talk about as connecting us – Facebook, the internet and others. They are also isolating us from other groups in the society, which before we were forced to see. Now we do not see them anymore. As a result, this is making radicalisation easier. Psychological studies that have been done on social networks show that if you are in a group, for example strongly pro-refugee or anti-refugee, remaining in this group your position (without you realising) this is going to be radicalised because it is also an identity issue. You are trying to make your identity on this, you are going to be all the time outraged. People are all outraged about something. They are all disgusted, but different people by different things. The pragmatic middle, which was so important in European politics, is missing.

My point is, the EU made one major mistake. This was a trend, but basically, it was during the financial crisis and it was a German mistake. In order to be sure not to allow some of the weak economies to take hostage of the euro they basically decided to constitutionalise some of the macroeconomic policies, the way human rights are constitutionalised, for example with the budget deficit. As a result, macroeconomic policies left electoral politics. When there is no economic policies in the centre of electoral politics, what remains is identity politics. The difference is that on the economic issues we can much easier to find a compromise than on identity politics. Now we are moving into a direction which is slightly reverse what we had in the European history starting with the religious wars. Where the major development of European politics was ‘let’s legitimise certain passions like economic interests and others in order not to clash over the ultimate values God on which we cannot negotiate.’

We are seeing some illiberal tendencies in Hungary and Poland. You said we should not consider the EU as a safety net in this context. Should the EU, its institutions, be better equipped to deal with such developments?

Some colleagues and friends of mine are very much pushing in this direction, they basically believe that the Copenhagen criteria should be weaponised. I do not believe this. Politically it is not about different governments it’s the problem that in many of our societies this is not going to be accepted.

Let´s give you a public opinion poll. When the Polish government decided to start this kind of process of rearranging the constitutional tribunal, the majority of the Poles opposed and they believed it was a wrong policy. But on the question – are you going to support the European Commission to push on this, 53% of them said no. We already had a level of mistrust in Brussels which you are going to empower even more. I believe it can be even counterproductive. Now the pressure from Brussels is not going to be enough, it even adds legitimacy to the government.

We should be very careful in distinguishing the problems. For example people put Hungary and Poland together. On many things you have commonalities but politically they are very different regimes. Mr Orbán is somebody who comes from the mainstream and moving out it. Something you could call ex-liberal. He was part of the liberal paradigm, he does not believe it works anymore, by the way he is an extremely gifted politician. His position with respect to the EU was always not to cross red lines, but to dance on them. If he is going to make a media law he is going to take the worst parts of media laws from every member states. The Polish government is completely different. Mr Kaczyński is not corrupt, which is very important. He is an ideological politician. He has been fighting this war of his since 1990. He was one of the faces of this national conservative revolution, which he believe was betrayed by the Solidarity leadership. Now he basically believes this is the fight for the soul of Poland. If you see in economic and to some extent social policies for him the two ministries that really matter are the ministry of culture and the interior ministry. In this situation to believe simply intervention from outside is going to work is illusionary. It can backfire. There are two more years in which Poland is going to be a major recipient of European funds. After that it will become a contributor. Even this leverage is going to be significantly reduced.

In Brussels there are people that have never had a genuine political experience, even the worst politician knows that there are certain context in which there are things that you are not going to do even if you believe that they are right. I believe that the EU created otherwise gifted class of intellectuals and bureaucrats and others. But they really lack a genuine political experience. The model of the EU was policy without politics and politics without policy in the nation state, now these policy without politics is producing ideas, some of which can be counterproductive.


Subscribe to our newsletters