TL:DR: a good overview of the problems facing Europe, but somewhat limited.
Reading this book, I cannot help but think of The Lost Continent, a book exploring the effects of the financial crisis on Europe. This book, in some ways, reads like an updated version. James Kirchick takes us on a tour of Europe, exploring the fault lines that are threatening to rip the European Union apart. He examines the threat posed by Putin and Russia, the rise of neo-fascist movements in parts of Europe and the political and social earthquakes triggered by mass immigration. It is, in many ways, a very interesting read.
Many of the problems he points to are serious threats to peace. Putin’s rise to power in Russia – and his tightening grip on the countries surrounding Russia, as well as his political influence in Europe – is a very real threat. Like most bullies, Putin is smart enough not to bite off more than he can chew – a combination of other threats and a genuine reluctance to go to war are enough to keep the West from doing anything solid about the threat. And, like most bullies, the only thing that will stop Putin is a creditable threat of force, a threat that no longer exists. Would NATO go to war to defend the Baltic States? There is a very strong possibility that the answer is no.
At the same time, Kirchick does not realise the true extent of the problems facing the European Union. It was suffering from a severe crisis of both legitimacy and credibility prior to the migrant crisis, a problem that has only gotten worse because the EU governments – mainly Germany and Sweden – have tried to hide the scale of the problem rather than come to terms with it. By attempting to marginalise anyone who spoke out against immigration (mainly by calling them racists), EU leaders made it impossible to have a real conversation about immigration. This ensured that voters would come to believe the worst. Accordingly, vast numbers of voters had no choice, but to turn to the far-right parties … the only ones pledging to do something about a serious problem.
Kirchick does acknowledge this as a problem – and even concedes that such voters have a point – but he doesn’t follow it to its logical conclusion. Perception plays a major role in determining how people feel about … well, anything. The perception that the truth is being hushed up, that those who speak out will be suppressed, that the politicians are idiotic or openly contemptuous or hostile to their own people, drives voters to the right. Sympathy – with refugees or foreigners in general – has its limits, particularly when people feel they’re being taken advantage of. Those who see themselves being forced to bear the burden of bad decision-making by governments – the migrant crisis, the Greek crisis, etc – think of themselves as victims. They think their interests have been marginalised to suit someone else.
The voters may be wrong to believe this. But telling them they’re wrong, without even giving them time to vent, is not helpful. And this goes double when the government’s credibility has been shot to hell.
Kirchick does not, in fact, touch upon the most important factor of all in Europe’s rise to power – the rule of law. The West developed a framework for ensuring that the law applied equally to all, regardless of their race, religion, gender, etc. Our ideal is that everyone is equal under the law. One may argue that this doesn’t work out that well in practice – that the rich and powerful can escape punishment for their crimes – but that is our ideal. The perception that certain segments of society can have their own laws, that their laws can supersede ours, that they can escape punishment for horrific crimes, that our governments and police forces are reluctant to investigate for fear of being called racists is undermining faith in the rule of law. And when the rule of law collapses, it is replaced by the rule of force.
This is the core of the problem facing the EU. No one has any real faith in it, no one feels any loyalty to it, save for the people who benefit from it. And why should they? It is a bureaucratic monstrosity that is fundamentally unaccountable and resistant to reform. The EU – and mainstream European politicians – have made so many mistakes that voters have no reason to trust them – and, again, why should they? The politicians are incredibly detached from reality. How many mistakes can they make before they lose everything?
Kirchick argues that the solution to Europe’s problem is greater unity. But this is fundamentally unworkable. One cannot fix an unfixable edifice, nor can one restore confidence simply by decreeing it so. Doubling down on failure is not a winning strategy, not when it will only further undermine the EU governments. The only way to begin restoring confidence is a through house-cleaning, the removal of politicians with no grasp at all of reality and a firm return to the rule of law. And, perhaps, a recognition that the push towards European unity has gone too far.
But I don’t think this will happen. The rot may already be too deep.
The EU’s creators saw fit to undermine nationalism – believing, perhaps correctly, that nationalism had played a major role in unleashing two world wars. But, in doing so, they undermined society itself. Too much nationalism is dangerous, but so too is too little nationalism. Those who have no loyalty towards society have no inclination to defend it, when another challenge comes along. But the credibility and trust gap led – inevitably – to a new form of nationalism, one that hated and feared the EU. Worse, perhaps, the new nationalism is potentially very dangerous because it cannot be easily shaped into well-worn channels. It is a form of incoherent rage that will not, that cannot, be safely targeted. Nor will it listen to reasoned agreements and honeyed words from those who have no credibility left.
The End of Europe is an interesting read. But it’s blithe faith in European unity – and the scorn it shows for those who do not appreciate the benefits of the EU – are symptomatic of a far wider problem: the simple failure of dreams and bureaucrats to understand that the real world does not kowtow on command. People vote in what they see as their own best interests, rather than the interests of the EU as a whole; people care more about themselves, their families and their countries more than anything else. There is no cold awareness of reality …
And reality does not go away when you close your eyes.