Academic: A vision for Europe is desperately needed

People carry a large flag in European Union colours as they take part in the 'March for Peace' from Perugia to Assisi, Italy, 07 October 2018. [EPA-EFE/MATTEO CROCCHIONI]

Liberals are better at pointing out others’ faults than at doing self-reflection. They spend more time explaining away the popularity of populism than explaining the fall of liberalism, says Jan Zielonka, adding that the EU has become a caricature of a neo-liberal project and needs a new vision. EURACTIV Poland reports.

Zielonka is a Polish-British political scientist teaching European Studies at the University of Oxford.

He spoke to EURACTIV Poland’s Maria Graczyk.

The EU is on a sharp bend. What direction can it take?

For now, we are treading water. We are faking reforms, re-heating old ideas we did not accomplish at a time when there was a better economic situation. Real changes will therefore probably have to be forced by external shocks and therefore will be chaotic and painful.

But the refugee crisis and Brexit already exacerbates pressure.

Nevertheless, nothing happens, politicians dig into the wells. And they return to their discredited policy in previous years. Example? Refugees. For many years we have dealt with warlords and we know how it ended. Today, we are returning to the same model. We have become hostages of Erdogan’s policy with his refugee camps. First of all, I would not like to be hostage to his policy, and secondly – it is a denial of all the values on which liberal Europe was built.

Who “lost” Turkey then?

It takes two to tango. Not only is Erdogan responsible for what is happening in Brussels-Ankara relations. When he came to power, he was very pro-European. Nevertheless, none of his efforts to get closer to Europe were successful. He was always told “tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.” In this way, we have deprived ourselves of credibility and instruments of influence on Turkey.

Most EU countries were reluctant towards this enlargement. Just as the Turks were stuck in the EU’s waiting room for years.

Turkey must either be accepted or it needs to be said openly that “we do not accept, but we want to expand our relations in specific areas”. Instead, Turkey has been a candidate for years while we have set its terms. It was unbelievable. We left our cosmopolitan, pro-European friends in Turkey on the ice. It was similar with Ukraine. I’m not saying that all these problems were solvable, but I know that if we had followed what we declared, it would have not been as bad as it is. We did everything to destroy these good relations.

Has fear predominated?

The discussion on whether or not to enlarge dates back to the beginning of the European community. The biggest mistake – as the French have believed until today – was for Europe to accept Britain. There were also fears about Poland. Meanwhile, the Union grew in strength, expanding and deepening its integration at the same time.

The construction of the community did not involve the creation of a small federal state. If it had relied on this, Germany and France would have set up a joint federation, perhaps including Belgium, and it would have ended there. But the European idea always consisted in strengthening cooperation and that this oasis of peace and prosperity would expand to an ever larger area of the continent.

This very wise policy was laid into the hands of populists and nobody defended that basic idea. The biggest problem is that the Union has not found a way to involve citizens in its decision-making processes. Therefore, whenever populists or demagogues started shouting that things were going badly, we did not have the opportunity to talk to citizens to convince them of our reasons.

The importance of the European Parliament is growing.

And this is the best example – with each treaty we gave the European Parliament more powers and each time fewer and fewer people voted in the European elections. And those who went to the polls were giving more and more votes to the anti-European parties.

We should start talking about major alternatives, not just about what will happen in the EP with the UK’s seats, or whether to directly elect the President of the European Commission. These are cosmetic changes.

You were a moderate optimist after the 2015 elections in Poland. Did you maintain this attitude?

In the context of the Union, it has not changed much. But the reform of the judiciary in Poland, whose manner of conduct is scandalous, gave all those in the Union who do not want to listen to what we say, the occasion to see us as a black sheep. This has had very negative effects. However, in economic terms, Poland is doing very well.

I have a grudge against the current government on two issues. The first one was the attack on the judiciary, which required changes, but not that exaggerated. The second is the creation of psychosis against the invasion of Islamic terrorists on Poland. It is absolutely unjustified and has the form of political xenophobia, which introduces us to the group in which Le Pen is. There is also the issue of public media.

But on the other hand, it must be admitted that in terms of social policy, it suddenly turned out that there is money for a dentist in schools, that you can help single mothers and large families. The previous government’s assurances that we cannot afford it, were not true. We can afford it and the economy will not fall. The continuing support for the ruling party is not surprising. I’m just wondering if this government has any European policy.

What European policy did the previous government have?

They drifted along and signed up to trends. The previous government had very good contacts at the elite level, it was very well absorbed in those elites that rule Europe. It gave them the opportunity to settle various matters, for example, to choose their man for an important position. But in political terms, it turned out to be deadly, as demonstrated by the result of the 2015 elections.

What should European solidarity look like for Italy or Greece? Forced relocation has not worked and the problem still exists.

The idea on which the Schengen system was built, that the host countries of refugees are responsible for them, is unsustainable. Greece, which is practically a failed state, is to take responsibility for refugees. What is worse is forced to quasi-Nazi practices, closing people in the camps, which formerly were called concentration. This is outrageous.

What is the other solution?

There are no proven solutions for immigration issues, social inequalities or environmental protection. And certainly, there are no solutions that will bring immediate effect. Because if they bring immediate effect, like Erdogan’s camps, the price in the long run is terrible. In political and ethical terms. If we act like beasts and say that these are only transitional periods, then we will turn into something that we criticise ourselves.

The problem of immigration is a great example of this. When the Albanians started coming to Italy in 1991, in Brindisi there were the same scenes as in Budapest in 2015. And what have we done since then? We pretended we had a migration policy. We sent military patrols to the sea, overpaid the North African warlords, and then we bombarded several countries.

It has been mainly the United States …

… Libya was bombed by France and Britain. In Iraq, it was also us, Poles. And then we wonder in Europe that there are refugees. It is not just about poverty in African countries, which we not only tolerated but even contributed to its deepening. Let’s not pretend that it has nothing to do with us. You need to have the courage to talk about it with the public. In Poland, before the 2015 elections, public opinion was not negative about refugees or Muslims. It was manipulated in the election campaign – consciously by one side, and the other party did nothing to oppose this demagogy, it buried its head in the sand.

Could the Union help and stop Brexit?

Of course, there was a chance for Britain to stay in the Union. Well… there was even a chance that it would become its leader in the times of Tony Blair. For this cooling of relations, someone in the EU should also take responsibility. We had absolutely correct contacts with Russia, even in the first years of Putin. The Turks were also pro-European, which I already mentioned. And suddenly they all turn their backs on us and start either to divorce or exchange threats. Meanwhile, the Union always blames others – perfidious Albion, Islamic Turks, fanatical Ukrainians or Russian imperialism.

On the social issue, the British government is being blamed because it has not prepared infrastructure for more people on the labour market. However, Brexit was decided by a whole galaxy of various factors. As a result, social support for the European project was lost on the Thames. It “helped”, among others, that the Commission is listening more to 30,000 lobbyists living in Brussels than citizens.

How did it happen that the Union became a caricature of a neo-liberal project? People who lobby in Brussels are very effective and well paid. They have a much greater impact on EU decisions than citizens of the member states. And then we are surprised that people vote not as we would like them to.

The European Parliament is trying to change this, has initiated many debates.

The European Parliament is a discussion forum without the possibility to influence decisions that are taken elsewhere. It has no power, it can make resolutions that governments can ignore. And when it takes on some important topics, it talks about them with such indigestible jargon that no one listens. Even journalists working in Brussels are so saturated with the language that nobody reads them.

Who should initiate such a debate with the public, if not an EU institution?

People understand that we are doomed to integration because we are already so connected and addicted. The problem is that this integration takes place in structures that do not function and which in my opinion cannot be changed. Before the failure of the European constitution, in which I was involved, I also thought that it would be possible to reform in a controlled manner.

After the defeat of the European Constitution, which was well-deserved because the document itself and the process of reaching it were incorrect, I came to the conclusion that the EU institutions would not be reformed in a controlled manner, that there must be some shock.

A shock can lead to the breakup of the European Union.

It is not a real threat, but if the Union does not come up again, it will be only a dummy. You can see it today – politicians gather regularly at all European summits, take a picture together, send tweets to their voters but otherwise, nothing happens, they do not solve any problems, they stick plasters on serious wounds, they give aspirin for pneumonia. I can not imagine that people like Juncker, Tusk or Tajani would be reliable guarantors of change.

We have no other choice. Unless we wait for a shock.

We have a different way out, you can do a lot from bottom up. People do not have to wait for Mr Juncker to come out and announce another fictitious project. A good example is cities that develop cross-border cooperation in a crazy way, without looking at the Union. But it is not about replacing the union of states with the union of cities. The idea is to build a system in which many actors work as part of a network.

More a ‘Europe of Nations’ or a ‘European Federation’?

On the one hand, the error of the liberals was that they did not notice social ties, that they saw everything in terms of an individual, abstractly, without a family, a nation or ethnic or gender groups. They fought for the rights of all, but they did not understand that the world consists of people who have their views. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to think that the only most important community is the state.

And Macron’s postulates regarding the federation of Europe?

I’m not particularly delighted with his ideas. The French have in their political tradition the ideas of a hierarchy, an institutionalised organisation. The English are much more pragmatic, but there are practically none of them in the Union.

Do we have any visionaries in Europe?

One of the most interesting visions for Europe comes from the Argentine who lives in Rome. The speech of Pope Francis in the European Parliament is a very interesting text.

You have to have an idea for democracy, for social justice, for economic growth. These are very complicated processes in which politicians play a certain role, but not necessarily a leading one. It seems to us that the Union is emerging from the economic crisis, but we will know it only when there is a repeated shock and it will turn out if we have learned something. Brussels’ optimism is unjustified, it is an excuse for the current power elite to do nothing and, above all, not to pass the baton to the new generation – young people with new ideas.

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