With sympathy for his subject, James Kirchick in his new book surveys the continent in crisis. The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age, by Jamie Kirchick Yale University Press, 288 pages
It is tempting, especially for those in thrall to notions of American exceptionalism, to regard the election of Donald Trump as a singular episode in the history of our times. It is more properly viewed as the traumatic continuation of a populist trend that has been detectable across the democratic world for some time.
The rise of Trump exemplifies nothing so much as the crisis of liberalism roiling the West. With luck, it will prove the culmination of that crisis rather than its harbinger. For if it persists, it would herald the end of the liberal international order as we know it.
On this score, Europe’s predicament does not give reason for hope. A quarter-century after being formally established by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the European Union is in deep trouble. The economic and political institutions erected after World War II to foster European integration have yielded diminishing returns as the circle of nations in their orbit has grown.
In recent years, the disappointments of European federalism have eroded the credibility of its swollen political establishment and empowered rabble-rousers on both the far left and the far right (or some combination of both). In country after country, crises have converged. Separately and together, they portend a rising of the drawbridges not merely on Europe’s depressed periphery but also in the EU-15, the core nations of Western Europe. At stake is not merely the rickety “European model” of governance but the entire project since the fall of the Berlin Wall of a Europe “whole, free and at peace.”
Few have shed more light on this phenomenon than James Kirchick, an American journalist who has done yeoman’s work covering Europe from a variety of vantage points. In The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age, he analyzes the forces that have put the continent on a razor’s edge, and what is at stake in putting it back on solid ground.
Kirchick’s book is preceded in the declinist oeuvre by Walter Laqueur’s The Last Days of Europe (2007) and Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (2009). In contrast to those earlier works, however, The End of Europe is not even remotely Euro-skeptic.
Kirchick makes clear that he regards last year’s British exit from the EU as an indefensible folly, as if it were merely a species of Little England xenophobia that impelled Brexit. It is true that British influence in European affairs has dwindled — an unalloyed catastrophe for those who, like this reviewer, hold liberal, Atlanticist principles.
But it’s too much to say, as Kirchick does, that Britain thereby “demonstrated that it had learned the wrong lessons from its history.” One need not advocate splendid isolation from the continent to see that the British recoil was a valid response to the manifest failures of the EU.
To those who claim that the EU has performed woefully, Kirchick offers the retort “Compared to what”? Paraphrasing Churchill, he argues that the EU may be the worst system for governing Europe except for all the others. This has more than a kernel of truth, but unfortunately for proponents of European unity, it used to be truer before the EU forgot the wisdom of its fathers. For decades, it has been embarked on a design altogether different from and more radical than its architects envisaged — to remake societies under its writ without much regard for the national histories and cultural identities that helped postwar Europe cohere in the first place.
The End of Europe pulses with sympathy for the project that began on May 7, 1948, when The Hague Congress initiated postwar European political and economic cooperation. Even so, Kirchick is not particularly sanguine about its prospects. In his neatly arranged work, the author doesn’t foresee the imminent demise of the EU but wisely doesn’t rule out that scenario, either. Instead, he fears that Europe may become (as Metternich said of Italy) a mere geographical expression bereft of political significance. A serious accounting of Europe’s malaise shows that Kirchick is right to worry.
Economic stagnation, leading to an unemployment rate in the euro area upward of 10 percent, more than double the U.S. rate. The illness of the euro, which has never recovered from its original condition of being a common currency untethered to a common treasury. Demographic decline. An increasingly unaffordable welfare state. Growing social disorder. Military weakness. Russian aggression on the European landmass. These distinct but mutually reinforcing problems have long been visible to those with eyes to see. And yet the European establishment, by and large, has plucked out its eyes lest the sight of rising instability compels them to renounce their mantra of “More Europe.”
The peoples of Europe have begun to stir against their governing elites, begetting a chauvinistic politics seething with contempt not just for a particular ruling class but also for the ethic of liberal democratic capitalism. Kirchick is a deft observer of this pattern. His analysis spans the political spectrum from Greece, where the far-left Syriza government blames its woes on the German behemoth, to Hungary, where the far-right Fidesz Party of prime minister Viktor Orban declares openly for “illiberal democracy.” To make matters worse, a resurgent Russia intent on fracturing the West has funneled aid to reactionary movements from Budapest to Burgundy (and even, in case you have forgotten, within these United States).
In the midst of this political fragmentation, Europe’s key pillars have begun to teeter. It is a rich irony that Europe’s default power, the country most integral to continental cohesion, is also the one most responsible for nourishing its ascendant populism. I speak of the magnanimous welcome mat laid down by German chancellor Angela Merkel to accommodate (and, inadvertently, to accelerate) the vast migratory wave from North Africa and the Near East in the summer of 2015. Germany is certainly Europe’s “indispensable nation,” but many progressive observers have nominated Merkel as “the last hope of the West,” or “the true heiress of the Atlantic Charter,” to borrow the descriptions of Ian Buruma. The Economist, a representative voice of the European establishment (albeit in a British accent), called Merkel “the indispensable European.”
In welcoming the Middle East’s multitudes, she “upheld European values almost alone.” (One might ask, as Christopher Caldwell has, just how European those values were if she was compelled to stand alone in upholding them.)
Kirchick is plainly an admirer of Merkel’s but sensibly does not indulge this cant. He is a measured, not to say grudging, critic of her open-door immigration policy. But the recklessness of the decision is larger still than he allows for. The idea that European politicians should not assume new burdens at a time when European publics were buckling under the cumulative weight of those already assumed apparently didn’t occur to the German chancellor. On hearing prudent concerns about Europe’s capacity to absorb and acculturate such an immense group of newcomers, she proudly boasted, “Wir schaffen das” — we can do it. Since then, the EU has taken in almost 2 million Middle Eastern and North African migrants at great cost to public finances, social cohesion, and domestic security.
It used to be fiercely debated whether Merkel overplayed her hand when she cast the asylum crisis — 60 percent of which was economic migration, as Kirchick reminds us — as a humanitarian imperative. That is much less of a contentious issue today, when Merkel herself has offered to pay refugees to leave Germany and indicated in advance of a potential fourth term that the colossal migration of 2015 “can, shall, and must not be repeated.” (For good measure, she has also called for banning the burqa.)
Alas, this volte-face may have come too late. It wasn’t long after the migratory flood before border controls were reimposed between Schengen countries (“temporarily,” we have been assured). The effects were felt across the English Channel, helping along Britain’s decision to quit the EU. In France, the authoritarian National Front seems unlikely to prevail in the runoff elections but it will probably make enough of a stand to limit the next president’s room to maneuver.
In Germany itself, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been strengthened, with one November 2016 poll finding that 42 percent of Germans favor a referendum on EU membership. Merkel’s centrist grand coalition may not fall victim to this upheaval, but even if it survives it could prove to be the last gasp of this ancien régime. Dislodging the transatlantic alliance would gravely reduce the influence of America in Europe at a time when Russian expansionism threatens NATO’s eastern frontiers.
What’s more, the conditions are set for the U.S. to become increasingly unmoored from Europe. This brewing development should fill every friend of the global liberal order with dread. It has already eased the sleep of tyrants, not least in Moscow, where the Kremlin’s longtime strategic priority to remove Germany from Washington’s orbit appears at last within reach. Since the days of Adenauer when the federal republic adopted Westbindung (Western integration), it has served as the cornerstone in the arch of the transatlantic alliance. Dislodging it would not merely weaken Germany; it would gravely reduce the influence of America in Europe at a time when Russian expansionism threatens NATO’s eastern frontiers.
For understandable reasons, nationalism has long been a subject of fear and loathing in Europe, but Kirchick warns, plausibly, that “if Europe is to survive, its people will have to embrace a civic patriotism that venerates more than just pensions and holidays.” He has rendered an important service by demonstrating that ”a renewal of the muscular liberal center” is needed in Europe, but it is hard to imagine where this will come from. Dreams of an “ever closer union” — a clause in the Preamble to the 1957 treaty establishing the European Community and used to great effect by the Leave campaign in the U.K. — looks more and more unfeasible by the day. De Gaulle’s vision of a union of “nation-states” (Europe des patries) was always preferable to a pan-European superstate with the consolidation of sovereignty in Brussels.
Today, it may be the only prescription to avoid the breakdown of European order. The hard truth is that the “galloping nationalism” (to borrow the formulation of Jean-Claude Juncker, former chief of the European Commission) now in the saddle across the Western world was put there in large measure by the complacency of the cosmopolitan elite. It is hard to know whether the EU’s most salient characteristic has been liberalism without democracy or liberalism without nationalism. In either case, it will have to be on better terms with both to stem the menacing slide toward domineering liberalism and ethnic nationalism. Sooner or later, Europe will need to confront that fact. Creating the space for enlightened democratic nationalism would be a good start. — Brian Stewart is a New York–based freelance political writer.