Perhapsburg: Reflections on the Fragility and Resilience of Europe
“Man tends to regard the order he lives in as natural,” wrote Czesław Miłosz in The Captive Mind back in 1951. “The houses he passes on his way to work seem more like rocks rising out of the earth than like products of human hands. He does the work he does in his office or factory as essential to the harmonious functioning of the world…. He cannot believe that one day a rider may appear on a street he knows well, where cats sleep and children play, and start catching passers-by with his lasso. In a word, he behaves a little like Charlie Chaplin in The Golden Rush, bustling about in a shack poised precariously on the edge of a cliff."
For Europeans, the EU was such a natural world. It is not anymore. At the end of 2016, devastated by Brexit and unsettled by Donald Trump’s victory in the American presidential election many Europeans fell into deep despair. They had become resigned to the notion that the EU’s moment in history was over. Six months later, nothing was different, yet everything has changed.
In the summer of 2017 opinion polls indicated that a growing number of Europeans were betting on the EU. Emmanuel Macron’s decisive victories in France have led many Europeans to believe that rather than disintegration, further integration may now be possible.
But while “Macron’s moment” has dramatically changed the mood in Europe, it has not solved any of the problems that the Union is currently facing. It is commonplace in Europe today either to discuss the crisis of the union in terms of the fundamental flaws in its institutional architecture (e.g., the introduction of a common currency in the absence of a common fiscal policy) or to interpret it as an outcome of the EU’s democratic deficit. But in my reading, the only way to deal with the risk of disintegration is to recognize clearheadedly that the refugee crisis has dramatically changed the nature of democratic politics on the national level and that what we are witnessing in Europe is not simply a populist riot against the establishment but a voters’ rebellion against the meritocratic elites (best symbolized by hard-working, competent officials in Brussels who are nonetheless out of touch with the societies they are supposed to represent and serve).
In the twenty-first century, migration is the new revolution—not a twentieth-century revolution of the masses, but an exit-driven revolution of individuals and families. It is inspired not by ideologically inscribed paintings of radiant futures but by Google Maps photos of life on the other side (of the border). In order to succeed, this new revolution does not require ideology, political movements, or political leaders. For so many of the wretched of the earth, crossing the European Union’s border is a matter of human necessity and hardly a question of a utopian future.
For a growing number of people, the idea of change signifies changing one’s country, not one’s government. The problem with the migration revolution—as in any revolution, really—is that it contains within itself the capacity to inspire counterrevolution. In this case, the revolution has inspired the rise of threatened majorities as a major force in European politics. These anxious majorities fear that foreigners are taking over their countries and jeopardizing their way of life, and they are convinced that the current crisis is brought on by a conspiracy between cosmopolitan- minded elites and tribal-minded immigrants.
In the age of migration, democracy has begun to operate as an instrument of exclusion, not of inclusion. The key characteristic of many of the right-wing populist parties in Europe is not that they are national-conservative but that they are reactionary. And as Mark Lilla has observed in The Shipwrecked Mind (2016) “The enduring vitality of the reactionary spirit even in the absence of a revolutionary political program” comes from the feeling that to “live a modern life anywhere in the world today, subject to perpetual social and technological changes, is to experience the psychological equivalent of permanent revolution.” And for the reactionaries, “The only sane response to apocalypse is to provoke another, in hopes of starting over.”
So, it is less important that European leaders understand why the Habsburg Empire collapsed in 1918 than why it did not disintegrate earlier, in 1848, 1867, or on any number of other occasions. Rather than seeking to ensure the EU’s survival by increasing its legitimacy, perhaps demonstrating its capacity to survive can become a major source of its future legitimacy. Survival is a little like writing a poem: not even the poet knows how it’s going to end before it does.
Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna
EN The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.