Jean-Michel de Waele: ‘The European project needs to be re-established’

Jean-Michel de Waele [Georgi Gotev]

“The European model is dead,” Jean-Michel de Waele told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview. Our future model should be based on a core of six or seven countries that are capable of real political union.

Jean-Michel de Waele is professor of political science and dean of the Social Sciences Faculty at the francophone Free University of Brussels (ULB). He is often consulted by the media on political questions relating to Central and Eastern Europe, social democracy and the European left.

De Waele was interviewed by EURACTIV’s Senior Editor, Georgi Gotev.

Has the world gone mad?


We have a worrying Republican presidential candidate in the United States, a big problem with terrorism, and a migration crisis that is threatening to sink the European ship. Where are we heading?

We are living through one of the most unstable periods of contemporary history, or at least since the Second World War. There are so many issues all around the world. How is it that Donald Trump has such strong support? Europe is paralysed by multiple crises, the Middle East is in full-blown war, with no hope of a political solution. In China, the economy is slowing down, and nobody really knows how it will evolve. And the famous BRICS are not emerging.

The world has been plunged into great uncertainty, into a crisis unlike anything we have seen before. What is very striking is the absence of political hope, like we had in the past, during the Cold War. It is an explosive situation. And there are no political leaders that are up to the task. Where are the De Gaulles, the Churchills and the Roosevelts?

And it is also a crisis of ideas. Where are the great books of the last five years? The intellectual debate seems extraordinarily poor.

When I think about the last decade, it started with a plan. At least the enlargement of the EU was an enormous undertaking. It was hailed as the biggest success of the EU, but aren’t we starting to have doubts?

As you say, in contemporary history there has always been hope. We believed that peace would come to the Middle East, we saw that globalisation brought big changes, but we told ourselves the world was finally leaving the Middle Ages behind and we could be hopeful. We remember the euphoria of 1989, which we thought was the end of history.

But we can no longer say that the enlargement was a big success. It is clear that countries like Romania and Bulgaria are not making progress and that the problems of modernising these states are unresolved. We can see that the countries of Central Europe share little of Europe’s political vision. Opinions may differ over refugees, but the way the Czech, Slovakian and Hungarian leaders speak is so dripping with visceral xenophobia, with rejection of the “other”, with misunderstanding of the world and nationalist withdrawal, that I do not think this vision has a constructive role to play in building a political Europe.

I have always supported the idea that Europe is solidarity. The system of redistribution by taxation is based on solidarity. The rich pay more taxes to allow this to happen, and rich countries pay more than poor countries. This model is unique in the world. It is based on the welfare state, but also on our deep history.

But it is clear that Central Europe does not share this vision; neither the welfare state nor solidarity, nor the idea that the rich should pay for the poor…

I will try to play devil’s advocate here. Eastern Europe is not responsible for the colonial past. Isn’t there some strength in the argument that if we have all these people from the former colonies on our backs, it is the fault of past policies, for which Eastern Europe is not responsible? Who encouraged the Arab Spring? Who bombed Libya? It wasn’t the East. Why should they have to pay for the damage?

We can tell the countries of Central Europe that they have to pay their share because they supported the United States in Iraq, and it was their marvellous policies, and those of George Bush, that helped to create the current situation. It is very difficult to break down who is responsible for what. Taking the debate back to history is typical of Central Europe. But then where are the Swedish to blame? They had no colonies in Africa. Even Germany had very few colonies…

And the second argument is “we have no experience in these matters”. Diversity has always existed in the West, but some countries have stayed ethnically pure…

They became pure thanks to the agreements of 1914-18, because before this time, these societies were multicultural too. Poland had many minorities, and the whole of Central Europe was multiethnic.

It is not hard to explain to the West the major problems of Central Europe in accepting Muslim immigrants. When we have no experience of cohabitation with someone from another culture, it can be scary. There are some good reasons for this attitude. But there is a big difference between explaining and accepting the declarations of these leaders, oozing with racism. This is not the man in the street talking, or the taxi driver from Prague or Bratislava.

>>Read: Commission frowns on ‘Christian only’ solidarity with migrants

I find these declarations highly shocking from people in positions of power. This should be discussed. I am not so pessimistic about what happened in Germany, in Cologne. It was an odious incident, but to hold it up as proof that Merkel was wrong is unfair. Let’s wait and see. They said Kohl was wrong about reunification, especially the French and the English. Let’s trust the Germans to resolve this kind of issue and believe in their extraordinary capacity for integration.

I do not share the views of Viktor Orbán, but I do agree with him on one phrase. He said that none of these migrants wanted to be in Budapest or Sofia. This is just one more reason why the leaders of these countries should have welcomed these people with dignity and allowed them some respite, instead of drumming up racism. They would have left for Sweden or Germany anyway. Who wants to stay in Boyko Borissov’s Bulgaria? Nobody. Even the Bulgarians are leaving. There is no reason why the Syrians and Iraqis should stay in a country whose own citizens want to leave.

And let’s talk about the Roma. I am no naïve optimist: I don’t say it is easy to integrate the Roma. But the results of the Roma integration policies over the last 15 or 20 years have been catastrophic.

Yes, but the whole of Europe has closed its eyes to the Roma.

Yes. Europe, the European Union, should have been much more demanding on the Roma issue. We closed our eyes. Take Bulgaria and Romania as an example, although it is also true for other countries. We close our eyes to corruption. We close our eyes to the non-reform of the judiciary. And we close our eyes to the plight of the Roma. Why should these social issues come as a surprise, if we take no action against governments that fail to integrate their own citizens? How could we think that they would be capable of integrating Iraqis or Syrians?

In any case, with the refugee crisis, Europe is a boat taking on water. The idea of every man for himself is gaining currency. There is talk of a “mini Schengen” among the rich countries, but also of a consolidation within Central Europe, which would run against the political correctness of the rich West.

First, I do not believe in the emergence of a united Central Europe. The economies of these countries are not at all complementary, and without support from Western Europe, these economies would collapse. We talk a lot about Orbán and Poland. But Orbán has no social discourse, whereas PiS does. And Orbán’s best friend is Vladimir Putin, who is not popular in Poland. The contradictions within Central Europe are so great that unity is impossible.

For some time, I have thought that the model that was so important in the past, the European model built by Schuman, Monnet, Gasperi and Spaak, has done its job. This model was designed to help Europe live in peace, to raise the quality of life and avoid the temptation of communism. And it has been an extraordinary success.

But this Europe was created for that purpose. I think that 1989 was a victory for that Europe, but it was also its end. We did not set a new objective after 1989. We have been completely absorbed with the euro and enlargement, but these are not objectives. The euro and enlargement are not things that should be done for their own sake.

So I believe the European project needs to be re-established. I think a certain number of states want to work together. I think the European model is dead. We should pay tribute to it, and it is no criticism to say that it is dead. It played a wonderful historical role, but the European project should be re-established, with a core that shares a certain number of economic elements, values and historic connections. Maybe the six founding states, maybe seven or eight, but I think the European project has to be re-established.

And I do not think that this new European project will be limited to being a big market. We already have the market, that will not change. It is not true that the European Union will disappear. We need a certain amount of regulation on a continental level. This is not a political union. But the new project will be.

During the euro crisis, we observed a North-South divide. The migration crisis has exacerbated the East-West divide. If we make a core EU, will all the founding countries be part of it? Will Italy be part of it? I am not sure.

I absolutely agree. But it will be very difficult symbolically to get rid of Italy.

But Greece gets sacrificed in this plan.

Greece will be sacrificed, but anyway, re-establishing Europe is a task for the next generation. We do not have the leaders capable of making such decisions. So it is a generational question, and we will see how Spain handles the next ten to 15 years, and whether or not Italy can shake off its debt in the next decade. I do not rule out the possibility that a country like Poland could modernise itself enough to join a new European project in the next ten years.

So what do we do in the meantime? Do we keep living together even if we no longer get on?

As long as the European Commission fails to offer social perspectives to the EU’s populations, nothing is possible. As long as austerity reigns and we have a single neoliberal model… I believe neoliberalism is killing Europe. That is why people express their anger by voting for more and more right wing populist movements.

You are a left wing intellectual.

I make no bones about that.

But what is the left doing about all this?

It is facing a crisis unlike any it has known in its history. Where is the left at the European level? In Germany, it is forced to follow Merkel. In France there will be no social or even fiscal reform under president Hollande. Nothing. I think the most interesting things for the left are happening in the European South. It is not the Scandinavian social democrats, who want to confiscate jewellery from refugees, that are going to reform the left. This left is imitating the right, and the extreme right. It is dead.

So Europe is a fool’s bargain?

Yes. Delors said we should first make the single market, then a social Europe. We have made the single market, but the social side never came. Juncker said “this is a last chance Commission”. They keep saying that it is the last chance, but is there a real break between Barroso and Juncker? Are the citizens aware that it is the last chance? Sadly, I don’t think so. 

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