Timothy Garton Ash, a distinguished historian, is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University. His latest book is Homelands: A Personal History of Europe.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Timothy Garton Ash discuss the hopes and delusions of the “post-Wall” era; a critical analysis of two of Europe’s most influential politicians, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel; and what a Europe guided by “European values” would look like.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You've been one of the most important chroniclers of Europe and European history for many years. But your latest book is in many ways your most personal. It is a memoiristic account of what Europe is and how Europe has developed.
To ask the sort of broadest, most obvious question first—is there such a thing as Europe?
Timothy Garton Ash: Most certainly—so much so that there are at least five different senses of what Europe is. The book is a kind of summation of the 50 years I've been writing about, studying, and traveling in Europe. The most important sense for me personally is a Europe of lived experience, which has this unique feature: that one can be as European at home as abroad—I'm in Paris, I'm in Berlin, I'm in Budapest, and in Warsaw. I'm clearly abroad, but I'm also very much at home. Hence the title. Americans only have the one homeland, as in “Homeland Security.” The Chinese only have the one homeland. But this for me is in a way the most attractive and unique quality of Europe.
But then of course, you have the very ill-defined geographical area. You have a sense of a core Europe, which is very, very strongly present in European consciousness and history, somewhere around the Carolingian core, somewhere around the Holy Roman Empire. You have Europe as an idea, an ideal, a set of values. Bronisław Geremek, the great Polish dissident, subsequently Foreign Minister and historian, once said to me, “For me, Europe is a platonic essence.” I don't think there's any other continent of which that could be said. And finally, of course, you will have a complex set of institutions of which the European Union is clearly the most important but not the only one. And so the fascination of Europe is precisely in the multiple complex interactions, and often confusions and indeed contradictions between these five different dimensions.
Mounk: One interesting critique that people have pushed on the European project in the last years was to say that Europe is in some senses provincial or perhaps, in the most extreme versions of that critique, even implicitly racist, colonialist, or white supremacist, since it privileges the sort of nations that are historically Western, white and so on, over other kinds of countries in the world that might share democratic values and some of those aspirations as well.
How do we construct an understanding of what Europe is that emphasizes the universality of some of those values and their presence in other regions of the world, and which, of course, ensures that within Europe's borders itself, the continent remains open to people who may have ancestral roots outside of the continent?
Garton Ash: I would separate the answer into two parts: internalist and externalist. I think on the internalist side, there's a perfectly good answer, which is, this is the continent that gave us the modern nation state, that gave us a global state system, that had centuries of conflict, and that is now trying to find a better way of being a very diverse people and peoples living together well in peace and freedom—which, after all, is core to the liberal project.
It is, as it were, an international, transnational, supranational version of the liberal project. And absolutely essential to that is that people with a migration background, people in the second and third generation, should absolutely feel at home in Europe, and should not just have equal rights in theory, but in practice—have equal life chances. And so I do devote a good deal of space in the book to demonstrating how relatively badly many European countries are doing that—for example, France. But within our frontiers, I think there's an adequate way to answer that question, framed in terms of universalist, liberal enlightenment values.
Much more difficult is the relationship with the outside world, where the EU falls into a very easy, almost neocolonial rhetoric in which it preaches these values as if Europe throughout its history has somehow been the incarnation of the values—whereas, for the rest of the world, Europe has been the source of colonialism and oppression and exploitation. And at the same time is actually creating a new Iron Curtain around the frontiers of the EU, or more accurately of the Schengen Area, so that it is night and day, if not life and death, which side of those enormous barriers you’re on. I went to see them in Ceuta, the Spanish enclave on the north coast of Africa. It looks exactly like the old Iron Curtain.
Europe is a universalist project or it's nothing. That is a distinctive feature of our version of European values. Of course, there are other anti-liberal versions of European values. But we are very much not practicing what we preach in terms of universalism. And there's a very big question of what it would mean to take those universalist values more seriously in our external policy.
Mounk: Well, what would it mean?
Garton Ash: Frankly, I don't have a really good answer. But I have some parts of an answer. First of all, there have to be safe, legal paths for immigration. There has to be swift, humane treatment of illegal migrants and refugees. And that's clearly something where we're falling down very badly. For example, the EU has been complicit either in allowing people coming on small boats across the Mediterranean simply to drown, or in having them caught by the Libyan coast guard and sent back to detention camps which are utterly inhumane, like some of the worst camps in European history. So that's an immediate starting point.
Secondly, I think at the very least we need to do much more on development and the fact that many European countries are not even meeting the 0.7% target. And that, of course, includes more significant market access. And then there's a difficult set of questions around how a liberal international polity relates to illiberal great powers, starting with Turkey, China, to a significant degree India, and of course Russia, and to what extent we have to, as it were, compromise on our values because of our interests, or make a triage of our values because that's the world we're in—an increasingly post-Western world where most of the other great powers don't share these values.
Mounk: There's a kind of critique of what Europe has been for the last decades, which leads to some of the same themes, that is to say that when you look at Denmark, or Germany, or Austria, they're very appealing countries; which despite the presence of certain internal problems are probably among the most humane and affluent societies that have existed in the history of humanity—and that is certainly no mean feat. But in some ways they have existed by outsourcing some of the dirty work, particularly around migration.
So we're perfectly humane and legalistic and treat asylum seekers, those who come to our borders, very well, in many respects. But all of that system can be kept up in part because not very pleasant figures like warlords in Libya or Recep Erdogan, a dictator in Turkey, are—because of deals we've cut with them—making sure that the number of people who actually reach our borders is relatively low. Extending the critique a little bit further, a kind of more moralistic and pacifist wing within European politics has looked down on the terrible Americans with their militaristic, swaggering cowboy attitude for having such a big army and going around playing world policeman. But of course, European (and Western European more specifically) security has for many decades been dependent on precisely that policeman, which even many European elites have not always been fully aware of when they make these critiques.
What would it mean for Europe to be able to live up to its values without sort of outsourcing some of the dirty work in these various ways?
Garton Ash: Interestingly, I think it connects back to the very lively debate about our colonial past. John Stuart Mill's day job was at the East India Company. There's a real sense in which that wonderful edifice of 19th century liberalism was built on the profits of empire in multiple ways. And there is a serious sense in which something of the same kind could be said, for example, about Germany today—Constanze Stelzenmüller’s famous line that the German model has been to export its energy needs to Russia, its export growth to China, and its security needs to the United States. Three ways dependency. And indeed, while the energy dependency has been rather dramatically reduced, the other two dependencies are still very much in place. Ukraine would no longer be an independent country today were it not for the United States and the speed and scale with which it came to Ukraine's aid. And German business has absolutely no intention of getting out of China anytime soon. Volkswagen has a factory in Xinjiang down the road as what can quite accurately be called concentration camps, where genocide is in place.
It's a huge dilemma. And to the extent that there is a good answer, we have to diversify, we have to de-risk (in Ursula von der Leyen’s term), we have to make sure we're not so dependent on, for example, China, that, when push comes to shove over Taiwan, we simply can't afford to take what our values and our belief in liberal international order would suggest should be our position, and we have to build up our own defense.
Mounk: This is what struck me as particularly interesting in the recent debate about Emmanuel Macron's remarks concerning Taiwan. The way that Macron expressed this point it seemed very much to be saying, “Alright, so we'll let people have spheres of influence, and we'll accommodate ourselves to whatever values they have, as long as we're able to play various great powers off each other and continue to do business.” What strikes me about this is not what some people seem to interpret Macron’s remarks as, which is a kind of grandiose, ambitious vision for a more powerful Europe, but actually the smallness of ambition; that the ambition is effectively to balance between China and the United States in the same way that Vietnam and Singapore feel that they need to balance between China and the United States.
What would it look like for Europe to be able to be more autonomous, to really live up to its values and not be stuck balancing between different powers?
Garton Ash: Just yesterday I read the original version of Macron’s interview in Les Echos, and I couldn't help think of Walt Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Because as always, with Macron, there are so many different thoughts flying around, not all of which are entirely consistent. But nonetheless, when he talks of the danger of being vassals, when he says why we need to be a third pole (by the way, an idea that China would be absolutely delighted by: a Europe which is distinguishing itself from the United States, notably over Taiwan and wanting to be another pole in a multipolar world), he is essentially articulating a Euro-Gaullist vision, a vision of the strategic autonomy of Europe, which defines itself as distinct from, and indeed, in some cases in opposition to the United States, while at the same time saying—and he says this in the interview—the most important thing is European unity. And what he has once again demonstrated is that while proclaiming the importance of European unity, the Euro-Gaullist vision always achieved precisely the opposite. If you think about what happened over the Iraq War, where a very strong version of a Euro-Gaullist vision was articulated by Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas and others, it actually divided Europe down the middle. You know the polling my Oxford Project did with ECFR a few months ago; in the last year, European public opinion has actually become much more united. German public opinion and Polish public opinion are much closer even than their governments are. Why? Partly because they think it's a good cause to defend Ukraine. But also because this has been done not against the United States but in strategic partnership with the United States.
My view remains absolutely that the only way to get a stronger Europe—which I very much believe in, European power which can defend our interests and values—is the Euro-Atlanticist version, one which sees us in a strategic partnership with the United States, where we do more for our defense, we become less dependent on countries like China, we de-risk, but understand that in the global context of a post-Western world, this is going to be in a strategic partnership with the United States and not some illusion of an autonomous European superpower.
And by the way, as Europeans, we are of course very conscious of the fact that Donald Trump might be the next President of the United States, and therefore that that challenge might be coming our way quite soon. And if he pulls the rug from Ukraine, then there is a very immediate challenge—what is Europe actually going to do to defend Ukrainian democracy and Ukrainian independence from Russian imperialism? The other quick point I do want to make is that it is a deeply shocking fact, which for someone like me whose whole life was devoted to the cause of the liberation and democratization of Central and Eastern Europe (a “Europe whole and free”) that we have in Hungary a full member state of the European Union that is no longer a democracy, that most political scientists would now agree is a competitive authoritarian system—and, by the way, a rather stable, consolidated, competitive authoritarian system. And so the other great challenge to the European Union is to make sure it defends its own values and interests internally as well as externally.
Mounk: You invoked February 24th, 2022 as in some ways the end of Europe's post-war order. Of course, Olaf Scholz, the Chancellor of Germany, gave a noted speech in the immediate aftermath saying that we had reached a Zeitenwende, a turning over of historical errors.
To what extent do you think that the European public or, for that matter, European policy elites have actually become conscious of that turning over of errors and are acting on that insight?
Garton Ash: Germany fell prey to the hopes and illusions of what I call the “post-Wall era” more than any other European country; the historiosophical mistake of believing the way history had gone through 1989, the 1990s and early 2000s was the way history was going to go; mistaking history with a small-h (as a product of conjuncture, chance, choice, individual leadership and will) for history with a capital-H (a Hegelian process of inevitable progress towards freedom) and also the illusion that essentially peace could be secured by diplomacy and economic interdependence and didn't need the military dimension of power. Yes, Germany has moved a long way. But it had, by far, the longest way to go.
I think the short answer to your question is that that understanding is powerfully present in Eastern Europe. And only very weakly present, broadly speaking, the further west you go: in Spain or in Portugal, much less so. And perhaps in France, and, therefore, so often in modern European history, the key is Germany. If Germany itself became serious about everything that would be needed to make a reality of this Zeitenwende, from building up military power to reducing economic dependence on authoritarian regimes—of which by the way, German business is a signal case—to the agenda of the eastward enlargement of the European Union to include both the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova, and potentially Georgia (which in my view should be the strategic agenda for the next 10 to 15 years for the EU—that, as Scholz himself has has pointed out, necessarily requires a further deepening of the European Union) then I would think that we have a chance of answering your question with “yes.” Do I see that consciousness pervading the German political debate and the German political class at the moment? Alas, no.
Mounk: Your book is a wonderful sweep of European history. It's very hard to summarize in a conversation.
Beyond some of the obvious changes in Europe over the last 50 years—including the fact that 50 years ago, Europe was very much a divided continent, half of which was under the imperial dominance of the Soviet Union—what are some of the most surprising ways that Europe has changed?
Garton Ash: I started traveling in the early 1970s and, at that time, more Europeans lived under dictatorships than lived in democracies. People today always forget that. We did the numbers: if you include the European republics of the Soviet Union, 389 million Europeans lived in dictatorships—only 289 million in democracies. The dictatorships, of course, included Spain, Portugal and Greece. That has obviously been a massive change for the better and, of course, a change that has not been experienced so positively by a large part of our own societies, as we know from any analysis of populism; but for many millions of Europeans, like the generation of Central and Eastern European students who've come to study with us at Oxford or in London or Paris or wherever, has meant a transformation of life chances. Beside prosperity, obviously, welfare provision has significantly improved.
And I would emphasize two other things. There’s the dramatic transformation in the position of women in the last 50 years, one of the really positive changes that 1968 initiated in its feminist version, with a dramatic change in the position of women—which is incomparable. If someone had gone to sleep in 1963 and woke up today they wouldn't recognize that change. And last but not least, Europeans know each other in ways they have never done before in history. What we forget is that for most of European history, most Europeans never left their own region, let alone their own country. And it's only since the 1960s and ‘70s, with the growth of mass travel, that most Europeans have been to at least another European country and really got to know each other in quite different ways. That's the good news.
Mounk: That’s a great list of the good news. But obviously, I now have to ask you about the bad news.
Garton Ash: Apart from the fact that I have 50 years of notebooks, experiences, study reflections, the main impulse for writing this book was a political one, but a small-p, connected to your notion of the good fight, which in my case, is a good fight for Europe, Poland, free liberal Europe, since, I will say, 2008. And, by the way, one of the interesting things I found in working on the book is that for Europe, 9/11 is not such a big historical turning point. It is for the Middle East, it is for the United States. But for us, it's 2008, the combination of the great financial crisis and Putin's annexation of two great chunks of Georgia. From that point on, you have just one crisis after another, the financial crisis segues into the Great Recession, the Eurozone crisis, then, of course, you have the refugee crisis, you have Ukraine 2014 (the turning point at which the West failed to turn), Brexit, Trump, anti-liberal populism in countries like Hungary and Poland, but also Marine LePen, and Italy and others, all the way down to the largest war in Europe since 1945.
So that's the bad news. And the political impulse in this book was, in effect, but very simply, to say to my fellow Europeans that we have achieved the best Europe we have ever had—or, if you want to paraphrase Churchill, the worst possible Europe apart from all the other Europes we've tried. But it is now really seriously under threat and we have to mobilize to defend it. And so for me, the question now is whether we are indeed going to see that kind of popular mobilization to defend and extend what we have and what we have achieved. And if the largest war in Europe since 1945 doesn't wake up and do that, what will?
Mounk: In terms of political leadership, when we're thinking of the two most visible, transformative or the most powerful, perhaps most praised European leaders over the last few decades, I suppose you would have on one side Emmanuel Macron and on the other, of course, would be Angela Merkel.
It seems to me that all of the things you've said so far in this conversation should lead one to a rather harsh judgment of Angela Merkel, when you look at the big challenges of the moment—climate change, the euro crisis, the refugee crisis (where I suppose she may score some points), the cost of which has probably been the permanent establishment of a far-right Populist Party in the German Bundestag and most of its state parliaments; her pretty soft stance on Vladimir Putin and the failure to react to the annexation of parts of Georgia and of parts of Ukraine; then, of course, her advocacy for a deep economic partnership with China; and finally, the fact that, under the leadership of Angela Merkel, the Fidesz party of Viktor Orbán continued to be a member of the same political faction in the European Parliament as the Christian Democrats from Germany in the EPP.
You take all of that together and one has to come to at least a skeptical judgment of Macron, especially on foreign policy, and a decidedly negative judgment of Angela Merkel. Do you disagree with that assessment, and, if not, do you have any hope for more visionary political leaders who can direct us on a different path?
Garton Ash: The paradox of Angela Merkel is that she personifies so many of the good qualities of post-war Europe; the East German who becomes the most powerful person in Europe—civil, civilian, modest, always concerned to find negotiated solutions, at least in theory, to uphold the rule of law and so on. I mean, and for most Germans, this was a very good period, and they felt themselves personified by this figure of Angela Merkel. So I to try and—
Mounk: —Despite what may come across as a very harsh judgment, I don't say it with any rancor, because I do like and admire Angela Merkel for all of those same reasons.
Garton Ash: But let me come to the second part of the paradox, which is that I agree with every point in your indictment. I think on almost all the big strategic calls, in my view, with the exception of the refugee crisis (she might have communicated better but I think the big decision was the right one) she was much too slow to react to the beginning of the Eurozone crisis, allowing a really dangerous narrative of the profligate south being parasitic on the virtuous hardworking north to become established; and there was the panicky getting out of civil nuclear power, which makes the energy transition so much more difficult. And then in 2014, not recognizing—and this is someone who speaks Russian and knows Russian history, who had a picture of Catherine the Great on her study wall—not recognizing that this is a Russian Empire striking back and actually becoming more energy-dependent on Russia. And there were also failures to modernize German society in many ways—for example, digitally. I think the verdict of history is going to be very critical indeed on Angela Merkel.
Olaf Scholz still has a chance to find a better place in history. Kaja Kallas of Estonia, for example, has been a remarkable leader, has had a great impact. The Scandinavian leaders have been very impressive. There are very impressive figures in the European Parliament. But in the absolutely key positions, I don't see the people yet who have that agenda. Am I counting on it? I'm absolutely not counting on it. This is pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. This is what I want to persuade my fellow Europeans to do. But if you ask me just as an analyst, do I think it's gonna happen? I think it's more likely than not not to happen.
But a student in Göttingen, in the west of Germany, said to me the other day, “You've talked about these key generations who made Europe—the ‘14ers, who were shaped by the First World War, the ‘39ers, ‘68ers, the ‘89ers—will there be a generation of ‘22ers?” That was her question. Will there be a generation for which the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been such a moment of challenge to everything we believe in that there is that response? Analytically, I'm skeptical. I think it's been an absolutely formative experience for Eastern Europeans, Poles, Slovaks, people in the Baltic states, maybe some in Scandinavia. But I don't think it has been for most Portuguese, Spaniards, Italians, French, or even Germans. I rather doubt it will have that impact, but one has to hope that it will.
Mounk: I have always been very struck by Ivan Krastev’s characterization that what we thought of 1989 as this liberal democratic revolution in which people's aspiration for universal values, like individual freedom and collective self government, came to fruition against great odds because of the bravery of civil society actors and millions of people in the street. But in a way, what we're seeing today is not simply people who become traitors to their own youth—people like Orbán, who helped lead those movements, betraying them—but rather a kind of civil war between different strands of those movements; that we should reinterpret those movements as always having been, in one strand, for these liberal democratic values; in another, as a nationalist uprising against colonial oppression; and in a third, perhaps, as a conservative religious revolt against some of the secularist values of the communist regime.
Do you agree with that characterization, and, if not, how can we make sense of these countries in Central Europe that fought so hard for freedom apparently being so close to having that freedom taken away or, perhaps, to some extent, giving it up?
Garton Ash: It's clearly correct that both religion and nationalism played an important role, for example, in Poland, which was the icebreaker in the emancipation and eventual liberation of Central Europe in the 1980s. That was, to some extent, always there. But for me, I think the explanation is multifactorial. But a key factor is that what we call freedom, measured in some collective, simplistic, Freedom House aggregate ranking, didn't feel like freedom to many millions of people in these societies; that they felt themselves, in some ways, losers from the transition. They saw a growing not just economic inequality, but also what I call the inequality of attention and respect—in rural southeastern Poland, Eastern Poland and small towns and so on. To the old argument of “Is populism culture or economics?”—of course, it's both. And you had their combination, in addition to which you had the specific features of the transition, namely—Ernest Gellner talked about the ‘price of velvet’—the price of a negotiated transition, which is that the former elites, the nomenklatura of the communist systems, were able to exchange political power for economic power. Many of them were the great winners of the transition.
It's not just that I'm sitting in my one bedroom, leaky flat in Gdansk as a worker who participated in the Solidarity Movement, and there are these super-rich people I see on television in Warsaw; it’s that those super-rich people are the former Communists and the former secret police. And that produces a very powerful cocktail which a populist party like Law and Justice can then sew together in a narrative of the “incomplete revolution.” And I don't think the heart of the problem is captured by the term “neoliberalism.” But I do think you get closer to it if you take the argument between a sort of minimalist classic version of negative liberty, à la Isaiah Berlin, which says “a beggar is free to dine at the Ritz,” and a more egalitarian liberalism à la Dworkin, or Dahrendorf, or the Amartya Sen/Martha Nussbaum “capabilities” approach which actually says you need much more than that; you need what Ralf Dahrendorf called a “common floor”—you need a level of housing, a level of education, a level of health care, and a level of job opportunities. And you need a level of public recognition—recognition and respect.
And so I think if one takes it back to the question of liberalism, that is the conclusion to be drawn from the illiberal democracy (i.e. democracy in a state of decay) that we see in Poland. And it's fundamentally the same conclusion that is to be drawn from dangerous nationalist, antiliberal populism in Western Europe.
Also read: “The Green Technology That Dare Not Speak Its Name” by Francisco Toro.
Mounk: I have a last question for you. There is always a temptation to think about the future in terms of projecting recent trends forward, and yet we know that there are always surprises.
If you allow me to put you in the uncomfortable position not of making a prediction but of saying “Here is a significant surprise, positive or negative, which may occur and which may look really obvious in 20 or 40 years, when we're looking back at that period, but which most of us are not expecting now,” where would you go casting for that surprise? What kind of surprise do you think that might be?
Garton Ash: With the obvious caveat that we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, let alone in a few years’ time, I'll give you two. The first is, at the moment, the Russian economy, the Putin system, is holding up, the Russians are holding a great deal of territory. Top of my mind at the moment is the question of whether the Ukrainian counter-offensive can actually succeed in getting down to the Sea of Azov and to threatening Crimea and, therefore, to putting real pressure on Russia. But there is always a possibility of a nonlinear development in a system like Putin's, in a dictatorship. It's absolutely solid until suddenly it crumbles. After all, that's what happened in 1917, there was a rout of the Russian armies, and then the Tsarist system collapsed. So that is one to watch. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but it's certainly possible. The second one is, we have had our crisis in the West. Perhaps we’re still having it. China has not yet had its crisis. But what I have observed in the last 15 years is a Chinese political system, which in the early 2000s seemed to be moving away from Leninism towards a much more pragmatic, evolutionary developmental strategy, and that has returned to full-scale Leninism. So we have Leninist capitalism. And one thing we do know from one hundred years of history is that Leninism is not good at coping with the tensions and aspirations of mature societies and, indeed, mature economies. Without saying anything super-optimistic about how China is actually in the end going to get back on a path to liberal democracy—I think that's behind us—I think the tensions between Leninism and capitalism are visibly building up inside the Chinese system. And so it may not be, at the end of the day, that we are doing so spectacularly well. But our principal competitor may start doing rather badly.
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