Five European Crises

Robert Cooper in conversation with Karolina Wigura · 1 September 2015

Karolina Wigura: There are at least four major crises currently happening in Europe: the Ukrainian crisis, the migrant crisis, the Eurozone crisis and the crisis in Greece. Have these four made Europe less secure over the last couple of years?

Robert Cooper: I think Europe is indeed less secure now, above all in a psychological sense. But is somebody going to invade Europe? There is large number of migrants trying to get here, but that’s very different from a military invasion. In fact, paradoxically, these people are coming to Europe, because they see that the continent as secure. So we should be thankful for what we’ve got and as generous as we can be to those who appreciate it.

What does it exactly mean “generous”?

This is very difficult to say, because the number of people who would like to live in Europe is probably limitless.

And they don’t only want to visit Europe, but to stay and be treated the same as other Europeans.

I don’t mind that, but then comes the question of the absorption capacity. Europe has already dealt with such migration movements, for example right after the World War II, yet these were times when all the countries were ruined, people had nothing and thus were much more generous. As you become more secure and comfortable you also become less benevolent towards others.

Europe has benefited from migration, but nevertheless there comes a point at which society can be overwhelmed and then comes a risk of a political backlash. This crisis, however, should remind us that despite its defects, comparing to the rest of the world, Europe is still very secure place, a place to live many people can only dream of.

One of the biggest questions we are now facing is the question of human rights – are we ready to apply the same standards to the newcomers as we do to Europeans who already live here?

I don’t really think you can find an answer to that just in laws. The answer also needs a practical dimension. You have to calculate the cost of admitting those people, of finding them accommodation and integrating them both in society and the economy. The difficulty, as I have said, is that this problem seems to have no limits. There are lots of people in lots of places in the world who would like to get to this small part of the globe. To some extent, however, we can blame no-one but ourselves as these migrations result from the situation in the Middle East which we ‘helped’ to create.

What do you mean?

It’s hard to think of any policy that the West has adopted in the Middle East which has done something good and thus we should be cautious about what we want to do now. All the crises you mentioned in the beginning are different, but all of them are far from over and that’s the only thing they have in common. The migrant crisis looks more likely to get worse than better. The same applies to the Greek and Ukrainian crises as well.

In a commentary published in “The Aspen Review” you wrote that the Ukrainian crisis is a challenge for European relations with Russia and that revising this relationship is an unavoidable necessity. Have we already done it?

Yes, it’s very clear that we have. I don’t think that there are many serious people who want to have strategic partnerships with Russia anymore. The European Union just renewed sanctions against Moscow without many voices of dissent. This is avery different attitude towards Russia from anything I’ve seen in the last few years. So yes, I think that we have revised our view of Russia, although it doesn’t resolve the problem, because the problem lies in the behaviour of Moscow. I don’t see any sign of change in Russian policy. In fact, they get worse every day – sentencing the Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov and the Estonian border guard who was kidnapped are only two of the latest examples.

In an interview given by the American military strategist, Edward Luttwak, to the Polish daily “Rzeczpospolita”, he said that the only chance Poland has to be secure in the light of aggressive Russian behaviour is not to count on NATO or the EU for help, but to modernize its own army in order to defend itself. Only then do we have any chance of surviving, claims Luttwak. Would you agree with such an opinion?

Edward Luttwak likes to shock people and that should be taken into account. I think that this is a good moment for everybody to think about what they bring to the group of NATO and EU countries. And like it or not, although I believe deeply in NATO and the European Union, the fundamental unit in Europe is still the nation-state. Actually, what we really need to do in Europe is to do our defence procurements jointly. I don’t personally believe in the idea of a European army, I don’t think this is yet the moment for that, but I would very much like to see a European tank or a European rifle. They do not need to be made in Europe, we can buy weaponry even in Chiab. But if we buy together, we’ll all be using same equipment, and we’ll get it at a fantastically good price.

Does Europe learn from the crises we are discussing? Are there any conclusions drawn from, for example, the Ukrainian or Greek crises which could be implemented in order to change European foreign policy or internal policy?

Regarding the Greek crisis, I think we are in unknown territory, while with the other crises it’s predictable what is going to happen or what risks are associated with them – they all look bad. With the Greek crisis – I don’t know. Maybe in the long run a comprehensive reform will take place there? Maybe – given the second chance – Greece can survive and prosper? The good thing about that crisis is that we don’t know.

What’s the German role in the Greek crisis? The last round of negotiations between Angela Merkel and Alexis Tsipras was fiercely criticized by much of the German elite. Jurgen Habermas said that, by pushing Greece too far towards austerity, Germany lost the capital it has been gathering for the decades before. Do you agree with him?

I don’t think that situation is so simple, because this story has not come to an end. The thing which always bothered me about the Eurozone is that it seems to me a mistake to have a single currency without single economic theory. You need to have at least some intellectual consensus and it doesn’t look like we have it at all.

What would you recommend in this particular case?

To be honest, I am happy with what has been happening in Greece, because I still think that Greece leaving the Eurozone would be a very bad thing to happen at this moment. I am myself Keynesian rather than an enthusiast of Hayek, but on the other hand there are some reforms in Greece which are really necessary. The country fundamentally needs political modernization. It has been run entirely on client relationships with every new government giving a large number of jobs in civil service to its friends. That’s not the way to run a modern country.

But many decisions forced upon the government in Athens frustrated much of Greek society. After the decision to sell some Greek airports to the German company “Fraport”, there were commentaries saying Greece had become a neocolonial country, run solely by Germany.

The Heathrow Airport in London belongs to a Spanish company, Ferovial, which also owned many other British airports in the past, including Stanstead and Gatwick. I don’t think that it is neocolonialism. These are commercial transactions. Greece has already sold half of its Piraeus port to the Chinese and many companies around the world belong to foreign corporations.

A few years ago Germany was called a “reluctant hegemony”. Has it already taken the lead in Europe or does it still remain reluctant?

Germany is not a hegemony any way. Everything is in negotiations, not a hegemony, and that was made clear during the last round of talks with Greece, where the influence of other European countries like France and Italy was significant. So it is not the German leadership but the weakness of political leadership that we should worry about in Europe – it is a pity that there seem to be no other politicians who match Bundeskanzler in a quality of leadership.

We have named four crises, but isn’t the list longer? For example, Timothy Snyder repeatedly warns against a revival by the far-right in Europe.

I think that there is a slow crisis in European political systems.

 A slow crisis, a silent crisis?

I can’t speak for all European countries, but I’ve repeatedly seen in my own country how the political class is separated from the people as a whole. I am aware alienation of the political class is to some extent inevitable, but it may also be damaging. So I believe we should think a little more about democracy. Most of the constitutions of the Western European countries were written in the 1950’s. Since then, almost nothing has changed in political structures, although the societies we live in now are very different from the societies of the 1950s. We should understand democracy as something that should change continuously.

But what exactly do you mean? Thinking more about democracy sounds beautiful and idealistic, but what would it mean in practice?

I think that you have to look at each country one by one and the only country I can really talk about is my own. There I see a political class which has got lots of talented people, but which is very distrusted by the population and seen to care only about its own interests. I don’t think is entirely fair, but this is how it is. We have a parliamentary system which has become uncomfortable with itself.

Is that why the prime minister David Cameron decided to resort to direct democracy and call two referendums – on Scottish independence and British membership in the EU?

I find referendums to be an absolutely ridiculous way to make important decisions, such as the one about Scottish independence. If you take one vote on one day among the people who at that point of time happen to live in Scotland, that’s not necessarily the voice of the “Scottish people”. And it is enough to get 50 percent plus 1 votes in favour of independence, then that’s it. I don’t find it a sensible way to make this decision. But why do we have these referendums? It shows that you lack confidence in your own political system. This is a kind of populism from above. Referendum is method of the populist government.

We have a similar situation in Poland, as you’re perhaps aware. We might have two referendums in only two months, which will inevitably make them a part of political campaigning before parliamentary elections. What you’re saying about distrust towards the state is also something that you can sense very much here in Poland. So it seems it’s not only a British problem.

Democracy is a process of continuous renewal. Society changes and institutions need to change with them. We are lucky in Britain, in that we don’t have a constitution in a normal sense. The constitutional law is no different from ordinary law and it can be changed the same way with a simple majority in two houses of parliament. So we ought to take advantage of that and have a continuous debate about the constitution, for example about changing our parliamentary system. Your society has also changed a lot in the last 25 years.


And that is why we ought to take politics more seriously.

Every crisis brings change – is it possible that these four or five crises we’re talking about might bring some positive change? Are you optimistic about it?

Personally, I’m always optimistic and there are reasons for it. I think if you look back at the last 70 years after the war, you could probably make a list of 300 serious crises. And you’ve had a whole series of them in Poland. Yet, at the end of this, we all seem to be better off. So I think there’s good historical reason for being optimistic. At the same time, I don’t think being optimistic is very useful. I believe that we should always identify the problem, discuss it and find a way out. As Gramsci once wrote, you need pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. You know, in Japanese and Chinese the word crisis is formed of two characters, one of which means “danger” and the other “opportunity”.