Special Reports / Europe is a series of crises

Europe is a series of crises

John Gray in conversation with Tomasz Sawczuk · 3 November 2015

Tomasz Sawczuk: After the Ukrainian and Greek crises, we now have the migrant crisis. Europe is becoming divided.

John Gray: The big crisis is not economic any more, it’s about migration. And it can only get worse. The Syrian situation will probably deepen now, as an intended or unintended consequence of Russian intervention. But even when that’s gone, the disparities of wealth between Europe, the Middle East and North Africa are so enormous that this has become a permanent thing. One criticism that I have of European leaderships is that they keep talking about it as if it’s a temporary, year-long crisis. They say ‘Yes, we can absorb a million’. Ok, easy. But what about the years after that?

The same all around.

Two million, three million? It’s a very difficult and maybe not fully resolvable challenge for European countries. And what frightens me is that I think the people who say Europe should have an open door policy are forgetting a very fundamental fact – one of the things Europe is much better at than it’s been in the past is that pretty much all European states are democratic. And the last time we had open borders in Europe – unlike Russia – was before the First World War, when there was no welfare state, trade unions were weak and there was little democracy.

It’s comparatively easy, or at least functionally possible, to have a world without borders if we don’t also have democracy. But if you introduce democratic systems, then any change to the lives of a large number of people by large influxes of immigrants will produce a popular response. And that is not always a response of the liberal kind. People who believe that a liberal moral stance is enough are forgetting the fundamental fact that there is a great deal of tension between the world of open borders and democracy.

So what’s Europe’s response?

First of all, the migrant crisis is not resolvable within the context of European institutions. There’s no real possibility of securing Europe’s external borders. It can’t happen, because a continent is not a state. The former Soviet Union was a very big state, but it secured its borders almost too well – you could go in, but nobody could get out (laughter). In the EU, anyone who gets in into the Schengen zone – which is now being suspended and might be removed permanently – can get anywhere into Europe, into countries with very different levels of economic development and welfare provision, differing in terms of political circumstances and histories. Some of these countries – France, Belgium, Hungary – have far-Right factions.

Do you expect politics to get more radical?

Politics will be radicalised and polarized and the beneficiaries will be the political Right. What happened with the suspension of Schengen is that the authority and responsibility was devolved back to the nation-states with some building a wall – like Hungary, or being ready to leave – like Slovakia. I know that in Poland there was a discussion at one point about refugees being accepted in only as long as they are Christians.

It was a narrative presented by some Right-wing politicians and a private foundation.

How many do you have now?

The government agreed to take in around 11, 000.

That is practically nothing.

Then we’ve got the migrant crisis and the far-Right rising. How should we respond if the European institutions are too weak?

When people ask me: ‘What can we do?’, I reply there’s no ‘we’ in Europe anymore. Or there never really was, because the EU is not a democratic entity of a functioning kind.

 What is it then?

A set of bureaucratic institutions with various different leaderships, which are themselves fragmented to some extent. They interact with important political leaderships of important European states.

Angela Merkel reacted to this European inability to act by forcing through her own policy.

She did, but then she reversed it, because it caused her some internal political problems. In a sense, this shows the strengths and weaknesses of her politics. She’s a great stateswoman, in my opinion. I liked watching it for her very incrementalism. She does not normally take leaps in the dark, but instead takes things step by step and tries to avoid making irreversible decisions. In this case, however, she overreacted. I think it was a sort of response to German history – the dark ethnically oppressive state of the past. That’s why she said – come on, everyone can come.

If Alleppo is destroyed – due to Russian intervention – there can be a million extra refugees on top of the numbers we already predict. At what point does a state like Germany, which has still not fully reintegrated its own Eastern German population, reach its limit?

That makes the question of proper response even more pressing.

This is one of the features of my way of thinking I am most criticized for, which is – I think there are points in politics when institutions become dysfunctional and un-reformable. And this is the case in Europe. You might not notice it, because the historical experience and therefore the attitude towards EU in Eastern Europe is completely different – almost opposite from the one in Britain. And the reason is that, when asked the question ‘What do you want?’, people replied: we want a normal life as Europeans.

The problem is that what it meant in practice were normal European crises and in the 20th century they happened one after another. You weren’t aware normal life has not meant integration into a stable Europe, but into Europe in deepening crisis. And the reason for that is paradoxically the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War. After the Cold War, the European project became hubristic. It was not only about opening the door for countries such as Poland, but also about introducing the common currency and having all those vastly different countries – as different as Czech Republic and Turkey – in one organisation. Everybody believed Turkey would one day become a full member of the EU. Nobody considered what it would mean for Europe if its eastern borders reached Iraq.

We joined a project which can’t really work anymore?

At present, the EU is dysfunctional. It’s not just economically dysfunctional, because its currency does not work. It has now proved to be dysfunctional when facing a major issue of migration. It’s chronically dysfunctional.

Its external perimeters cannot be policed or secured, cannot be sealed. I’m not saying they should, but since many people demand it, it suddenly turns out they can’t. There’s no solution to this crisis except at the national level, with different polities which need to decide what to do.

You said that when Central and Eastern European countries entered the EU, it was already a zone in which a crisis followed a crisis and we did not know this was the case. The question therefore is: should they engage in the crisis, accepting that the crises are just an inherent feature of the EU, or should they turn their backs on the EU, just like Viktor Orban seems to be doing.

Turning one’s back on Europe would be to accept the so-called Putinization of Europe. It may happen at one point, but it’s a very dark project. There’s going to be some authoritarianism in Russia for an indefinite future. Joseph Conrad once wrote that ‘wherever in the world two Russians meet the shadow of autocracy falls between them’. In Britain, we haven’t been stuck between Germany and Russia, and, if we were, we would prefer to be closer to Germany. Poland is stuck with it and to turn your back on Europe would be catastrophic. Just don’t join the euro.

Europe can’t guarantee our security?

Your security depends on NATO. It’s the only organisation that really protects you. The same applies to the Baltic states. Let’s put it more simply – if there was a real crisis in Eastern Europe or in the Baltic states, what would the response of Germany be? Would Germany go to a war with Russia?

Maybe not, but probably neither would the US.

If they did not, that would be the end of NATO, so they would have something to lose. And in case of Germany, the response has always been to forge links with Russia – economic and other – which make conflict unlikely.

But Angela Merkel was one of the politicians most strongly in favour of implementing sanctions against Russia.

Right, but what does that amount to? They will probably end at some point next year.

Because of what is going on in Syria?

No, rather due to a lot of commercial pressure.

Many commentators say this is the whole point of Putin going into Syria to divert attention from Ukraine and force Europe to deal with Russia again.

I think Europe has already given up on Ukraine to a large extent. My friend George Soros advocates a sort of advanced Marshall plan for Ukraine, but Europe does not have the capacity to do that. And it’s not only about the money. Gorbachev – who by the way supported Putin, or a tsar or Yeltsin if he was sober, whoever it would be – would have attempted something similar to what Putin did. That’s the difference between Russia and Europe. European leaders are not serious, while for Russia that was an existential challenge. Their next goal, however, was not to incorporate Ukraine, but to permanently destabilize it and create a frozen conflict. My guess is that Putin aims to play a longer game of establishing a more pro-Russian government in Kiev. He just needs to wait long enough – five, maybe 10 years.

That’s a long time…

But that’s a foreseeable endgame. And what’s the foreseeable endgame for the European intervention? Is it to force Russia to give up Crimea? Unless Russia was paralysed in weakness to an extreme point, no Russian leader would ever accept it. The other difference between Russia and Europe lies in the fact that while Europe – including Britain – is disarming, Russia is modernizing its army.

Why then do you put any faith in NATO when you don’t believe in Europe?

It would be an enormous loss of historical importance, which is fully understood in Washington, even in president Obama’s period. If NATO did not respond to a significant military threat to Poland or the Baltic States, yhey would no longer be taken seriously by anybody. The next day, there would be a huge response across the world. Japan would start going nuclear for fear they would not be protected against China. Any country that was dependent on US would make everything to become self-sufficient or make different alliances. That would mean a huge loss to American status and power in the world. The world could really plunge into something like the 1930’s.

This may sound rational, but it is the most popular conspiracy theory in international politics nowadays, that Putin is a genius, an unstoppable strategist who took Crimea, then part of eastern Ukraine, and has now entered Syria…

Well, he’s only a genius compared to the West (laughter).

Is he thought of as a genius because he does things unimaginable to the West, or because he does things that really are so intelligent?

He’s an astute strategist, I think, but the first reason is that he himself and his regime remain unimaginable to the West. It’s a regime which our predominant tradition of Western academic, ideological, philosophical and political thinking not only did not anticipate, but didn’t even think was possible. Western thinking is based on the idea that authoritarianism can’t be modern in a way that is enduring, but it’s wrong.

Why is Putin modern?

First of all, he’s ultimately more dependent on Russian popular opinion than traditional rulers. Russia is very skilful at disinformation, very good at cyber war. But the real sense of its modernity is, I think, the way in which it perceives war as an integrated total activity and it’s especially modern in its use of perception. In shedding of perceptions, in its ability to shape this perception of Putin as being a kind of genius.

Some believe that he is simply irrational. Angela Merkel said that he might be insane.

That’s a complete mistake. He’s highly rational, it’s just that he doesn’t share the same goals. If you ask: which power in the world is the most rational in the European sense of ‘rationalism’, it is China, in the sense that they’re very cautious and aware of everything, they act purely with respect to a calculus of their power. Russia is a weaker power than China. It’s a second-order power trying to regain a great power status. Putin’s policies are more cautious, opportunistic and more adventurous in some sense. But they’re not crazy.

We think of crazy people as people we can’t understand. That’s a terrible weakness of perception on the part of Merkel, if she really means it. If his goal is to restore Russia as a global player taken seriously by everyone, the test would be in Syria. Just the other day, I heard a speech on television by John Kerry, in which he said that ‘our goal is to achieve in Syria what we always wanted, a democratic, secular, unitary Syria”. Ionesco could have written that line.

Kerry being more irrational than Putin?

It sounds irrational if he means it. Syria as a state has ceased to exist, just as Iraq has ceased to exist. Assad’s regime, which is murderous, is also secular. The alternatives to it are theocratic. There are about 120 jihadist groups there… What Russians perceive as a state of Syria is gone forever.

So what will Putin’s rational goals be?

First, to stabilize Assad, who was looking weak. Not to reconquer all the territory, he can’t do that. If there is a genuine moderate opposition to Assad – neutralize that. Maybe stabilize the country that emerges, with Assad stabilizing a part of the country, the rest of it – who knows? If he pursues that, it would be a realistic achievable goal.

So to say that he’s irrational is completely absurd. What it highlights is the inability of European leadership to grasp that political leaders and political strategies can be rational, but anti-liberal and in some respect inhuman. Merkel is assuming no one can want a goal like reinstating a country as global power. If you think of this as a classical 19th century geopolitics, it becomes very rational.

What’s the rational response of Europe?

Europe can’t do anything, it is completely powerless. Who is Europe in this context? The only thing Europe’s done recently is be disastrous. France and Britain, not America by the way, destroyed the Gaddafi dictatorship and turned the place into a jihadist hellhole.

The way you describe it suggests the logic of the situation is fatal. Russia is active and Europe is passive and nothing can be done. Don’t you envision any way in which Europe can overcome this fate?

Putin might overreach himself or something else might happen, but it’s very hard to imagine that now.

How about economic sanctions?

It hasn’t worked. It has had a major damaging effect on the economy, but has not measurably reduced Putin’s popularity in Russia. It has not produced a regime crisis. And won’t. So this would be Putin’s calculation – how long will they do this? Five years? We’ll wait and they’ll abandon it. Now, he may have accelerated this process by his Syrian adventure, but basically Europe still depends on American protection, that’s the key. It’s not what Europe does.

For some people problems like Syria, Ukraine or economic inequalities involve two separate questions, one of them being the question of morality, and the second the question of its practical applications.

They shouldn’t be seen as fully separate – it’s Kantian insight that ought implies can. It’s dangerous to talk about moral visions which are completely unsustainable. People would say: you mean in Syria you’re prepared to accept this monstrous, evil, wicked regime of Assad, which uses barrel bombs and tortures large numbers of people? Well, then what you’re gonna do? Are you going to invade, are you going to be there for 30, 40 years? Whatever you think of our colonialism or imperialism, are you really prepared to be there long enough? Now that we’re withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Taliban is back. Everyone knew that would happen. So we should only do things which seem realistically achievable.

Now, if you’re a sort of utopian leftist who says we must expand the areas of what is imaginable and possible, that’s a fine politics for a university seminar. You might get a coffee ten minutes later than otherwise you would, if you’re locked in discussion. You don’t get people dying, being murdered, you don’t have anarchy and ISIL emerging.

However, do you really believe that, no matter what happens, we should just sit and watch?

In international relations I favour a kind of ethically constrained realism. Realism of my kind generally prefers peace to war. Sometimes, you have to wage a war, but sometimes you should do it even if you think you’re going to lose. I think in the 1940s that even if we were certain to lose, it was better to fight and be conquered that to let it happen with shameful, disgusting peace. But what you shouldn’t do in international relations is have these grandiose schemes: democracy, human rights and so on.

In internal politics, I’m very much an old-fashioned liberal. I’ve been told one of my sayings was once quoted by some Polish politician, I hope he was not from the Right…

I think you’re referring to Donald Tusk now…

Oh, was it him? (laughter) Politics is a series of temporary remedies for recurring evil – that’s what I believe.

Tusk seems to believe this when he speaks of the migrant crisis, too.

Tusk’s public comments on the migrant crisis have been the most sober and useful of all European politicians. He’s been very realistic in his assessment of the dangers of the far-Right rising.

If we can be as radically empiricist as we can be, we have to make value judgments. In that sense, you might have something like world views, but they shouldn’t be too unified, too integrated or pretend to be too rational. They should be sort of flexible.

Many fear that such an approach might turn us into nihilists.

There are some values that are, in my view, non-negotiable and that we should be prepared to die for. To me, the Charlie Hebdo massacres were particularly terrible. First of all, because it was a direct attack, the most extreme since the second World War, on freedom of expression. Secondly, its aim was the killing of Jews. People were standing in the bakery, they weren’t asked ‘what do you think of the Palestinian problem?’. They were killed. So such things are non-negotiable, you just have to stand by them whatever the consequences.

Although I’m not sure that’s what happened, because it involves this very painful difficulty, which the West is very unwilling to say if it’s up to, of choosing between terrible evils. The Assad regime is very evil. Is it more evil than ISIS? Less of a global threat – is Assad really threatening Poland? I don’t think so. It’s terrible in other respects. Although if you’re a Druze, a Christian or an Alawite, you think that if that regime falls, you will be killed.

This may be why we so often speak of rationality in such contexts. Some like to think that if we acted rationally, we wouldn’t kill each other because of beliefs.

There is a wonderful speech by John M. Keynes titled ‘My early beliefs’. It was a talk he gave in 1938. All his friends before the First World War believed human beings can be improved by reason, didn’t respect religion, conventions, traditions. He has this wonderful line about Bertrand Russell there. He says ‘Bertie’ believed two ludicrously contradictory things: that human history to date had been carried in the most irrational fashion, full of catastrophes, absurdities, crimes, atrocities and that the solution is very simple – we should just be more reasonable.

Isn’t it wonderful? Many people think that way now. But Keynes closes with a killer punchline: such a position assumes that human beings are now capable of being guided by reason. Yet, what’s the evidence for that?