Europeans don’t talk about war, but it could break out

There are more and more powerful voices against the EU, NATO or the West in Europe now than we’ve had in the last 25 years, says Anne Applebaum who is visiting Bratislava at the end of this week to attend the Globsec conference.

Anne ApplebaumAnne Applebaum (Source: Profimedia)

You wrote recently that we are three bad elections away from the end of NATO and the end of the EU. What did you mean by that?
Anne Applebaum (AA):
It’s not about the concrete elections, but about the fact that people who don’t see the EU and the NATO as the main priority are gaining power. In the US we are facing a real threat that Donald Trump will become the Republican candidate, in France Marine LePen leads the polls. Obviously, everybody is saying that these candidates won’t win, but a scandal might break out and the results might be completely different that what we expect now. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders is doing well, and the head of British Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn goes against the European integration to some extent too. If all this is combined, Europe as we know it today will become history.

What would the breakup of the EU look like?
There might be many ways. From the breakup of the Schengen area, the closure of borders and creation of various groups, through introduction of new tariffs, to a complete breakup of the EU. The worst-case scenario would be an armed conflict.

Is this something that could happen or something that will happen?
I think that it could happen, I might very well be too negative. There are more and more powerful voices against the EU, NATO or the West in Europe now than we’ve had in the last 25 years.

You have also written that we should not isolate ourselves in reaction to terrorism. But it looks like a lot of voters want to do exactly that: close borders. How can politicians go against their voters?
The job of politicians is to explain to the people what the consequences would be. You’ll be poorer, you’ll have fewer opportunities, you will be more isolated, you will not be safe. People do not remember the 1930s when there was economic protectionism which helped bring down many economies. They do not remember the 1980s when Europe was still divided, with very little communication between eastern and western Europe. It is important to teach people what consequences this kind of choice would have.

Perhaps it is more about people’s fears rather than rational thinking. Is it possible to persuade them by explanation?
It is harder to explain to people, to give people rational arguments because they have some alternatives. It’s one of the consequences of the way the internet is now used and the way information is spread. For example you can now read versions of the events which are completely opposite to reality, and you can believe them because they are repeated by some people over and over again.

In Europe, some things that were unimaginable last year are now real, like borders and fences.
Yes, nobody could imagine the end of Schengen, that’s true. And now it seems quite possible that Schengen could end. So yes, quite a lot of quite unimaginable things now are happening.

One of the changes is the agreement with Turkey about the returning of refugees. Because there are questions about human rights: whether Turkey is safe, whether refugees would not be denied the chance to ask for asylum. Do you think Europe is losing its foundation, its ideals of human rights, or is it pragmatic thinking that was always there.
Right now I do not see a big choice for Europe, another option that would work. Of course it’s a terrible thing to do and it’s against many standards that we’ve created. But I don’t think people are doing it happily. It’s just that there are no other options right now. Maybe later there will be something better. The migrant question is incredibly difficult because all the solutions to it are bad. One solution would be that the EU would put together an army, invade Syria and end the war. You could do it but it’s not going to happen. Another solution is to let all the refugees in to Europe, that cannot happen because it is destabilising Europe already. The third option is to have a third place to keep them and this is also a bad option, but it’s the one right now that is feasible. 

How long do you think Angela Merkel stays firm with her position for which she is criticized at home and abroad?
I do not think that right now Merkel is in any danger. A few weeks ago actually 70 or 80 percent of the votes in Germany still went to the established parties like CDU, social democrats, maybe the Greens. It’s not like there is the majority of anti-European parties in Germany. I think people are exaggerating a little bit how dangerous the situation in Germany is. It is much more dangerous in other places. Of course she will be not in power forever and whether she wants to stay after the next election is another question. She has been in the job for a long time. I do not think that she is in danger for some following months.

And do you think Panama Papers can change something in European politics?
So far there’s nothing in the Panama Papers that I would find surprising. I knew how it worked, I knew that the Russians are keeping their money offshore. These offshore banks are all legal. Even in Britain, if you have an ordinary bank account in an ordinary bank, you go there and say I would really like to have a euro account they’ll say we cannot create for you a euro account in the UK, but we can do an offshore euro account for you. That’s nothing illegal, nothing strange, it is how the banking system works. The British are in particular responsible because so many banks are in British territory. I think the answer is to shut down the offshore system, make it illegal, and people will not be using it any more. It’s a pretty simple solution and it would be to the benefit of everybody.

Is it possible to shut it down when some of the havens are also in the UK, Cyprus. Some of them are right in the EU.
The EU can shut them down, for example in the UK, Luxemburg, Cyprus and say that it is illegal to keep money in them, if you are a citizen of a European country.

Do not you think that this could be one of the arguments against staying in the EU, for example in the UK because they would say Brussels is pressing us to close banks on Isle of Man?
I think that they’re going to have to be careful. The backlash against offshore banks and against people and companies who don’t pay taxes is growing and is quite big in Britain already. And if the Tories or anybody else start arguing in favour of tax evasion they would lose power. Forget about Europe, it’s in the UK’s interest to end this.

Emotions are used quite a lot in the campaign before the referendum on Brexit. Do you think that rational stands of David Cameron can work?
Cameron is not running a good campaign. All the emotion is on the other side, for the most part. I don’t know, right now polls say it’s 50:50 and I will not bet on the outcome. I would guess it could go either way. We are still a couple of months away and the real harsh campaign is going to happen in June, after the local election.

And if Brits vote for the Brexit, what would Great Britain look like in five years?
That might be the end of Great Britain. We would have England, we would have Scotland, which would be a separate country. Great Britain would probably lose Northern Ireland which would probably leave and reunify with the rest of Ireland. And that would be the end of Great Britain. It’s very hard for me to see how anything different from that would happen.

Will this also lead to the rise in popularity for other separatist movements around Europe?
The success of the Brexit campaign could inspire a similar campaign in the Netherlands, which has strong anti-EU views, or in France. There is a number of countries where you have anti-EU sentiments and this can inspire them.

Do you see those sentiments also here, in central Europe?
Of course. Poland has elected an anti-EU party, Law and Justice (PiS). We didn’t see during the campaign that they were anti-EU, but now it turned out they are. The party has begun using anti-European rhetoric. A year ago Poles were 85 percent pro-European. But under the influence of a different kind, like state television, and with a government now devoted to anti-Europe sentiment we could see how it would be different here.

For example, the same is said about Hungary. Also, Slovakia has filed a suit against the EU. Do you think these stances are similar?
I think they’re all similar. I don’t think they’re different from the same phenomenon in western Europe. I’m not sure if there’s anything specifically anti-European about them. They seem a little bit more irrational because the EU has been such a huge benefit for eastern Europe, it’s just extraordinary in terms of Schengen, the subsidies, the open trade, and other kinds of ways.

How would you explain that? Don’t these people understand what they get?
Some people don’t understand it, some people are so accustomed to it that they’ve forgotten what life was like before. Some people are too young to remember. And some politicians are really cynically trying to use xenophobia and nationalism to take power. Everything that’s wrong they blame on Europe, and everything that’s right they take credit for themselves. So they use Europe as a kind of political tool and it's not that different in western Europe and central Europe.

But those politicians must know that if that goes on, they will somehow break up the EU.
Yes, but maybe they don’t care because they’re in power. One thing I learned last year is that the point of trying to win power as a nationalist party in a small European country is not to do good for your country, the point is to put yourself in power.

And if those countries of central Europe will move out of Brussels and there would be some smaller Schengen, do you think they can somehow counter the press from the Russian side?
Russia itself is not in very good condition right now, this can change in a few years. I can certainly imagine the situation in which there were a group of pro-Russian countries in Europe with undemocratic political systems, or where the democracy would be controlled by news. And they stick together and they were opposed to western Europe. I can imagine that.

You were been here in the 1990s when all those revolutions were going on and lot of efforts were done to make those countries work. Did you expect that these words could be said in 25 years?
Remember that in the 1990s we had very low expectations: people didn’t know if there would be any democracy here at all; whether it will work in one year, let alone in 25 years. And the surprise has been that it’s been a sheer success.

Do you have the same feelings as you had in 1990s about Poland, Slovakia, etc. now about Ukraine? Do you believe it can work?
I don’t know; Ukraine has much worse geopolitics; it is under sheer economic and political pressure from Russia. I don’t think anyone in the West is enthusiastic about Ukraine, except for a few people and Washington maybe. And Ukraine doesn’t have a lot of friends in Europe; whereas in the 1990s, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary had a huge number of friends. People wanted them to succeed; a lot of effort was made to see them succeed. But I don’t see anyone doing that for Ukraine. A lot depends on whether Ukrainians themselves can change things internally.

The support for Ukraine in Europe has decreased against two years ago when many Europeans were saying “We must help them now that they have chosen Europe”.
Not that many people were saying it, and they said that when they were shocked by the Russian invasion. Two years later, people want to go back to doing business with Russia. People feel less enthusiastic about spreading democracy now than they did maybe 25 years ago.

Pro-Russian politicians in central Europe – you wrote in the fall that we still need to find the right word to call them – do you have it now?
No. The useful idiot is probably the best phrase, although many of them know – for example Orban knows exactly what he’s doing. He is cynically running a policy which is pro-Russian to the degree that it suits him financially, and he didn’t care about Ukraine.

Do you see in central Europe anyone who is in power who can stand up for Ukraine and against Russia?  
No. If they wanted to make it a priority, Poles and Czechs and Slovaks would do it; but it doesn’t look like they want to – you know your government. The British and the Germans are pretty ambivalent but the German government is still supporting Ukraine, the British government is supporting Ukraine. They have not been abandoned, and the IMF is still working with Ukraine. But it’s sure that they’ve lost enthusiasm.

Slovak President Kiska is on the side of Ukraine.
That would make a difference. A strong voice in Slovakia would help a lot. Any solidarity which he can build with his counterpart elsewhere, with other central-European presidents, would be great. He should try to build it with the Polish president.

If you can explain to Europeans what is happening in the US: what’s your explanation of the phenomenon of Trump?
You should understand the phenomenon of Trump very well; the phenomenon of Trump is the same as far-right and radical parties in Europe. He represents the extremist-radical, anti-establishment, anti-intellectual, anti-political, anti-party way of thinking. But he is still far from being a president; and actually, his support is still pretty small.

In US politics, there are some eccentric candidates but they have so far always been pushed outside the mainstream politics. Is that over?
Historically that is true, although we have had – you forgot because we didn’t have them recently – candidates like him before. We had George Wallace in the 1960s who became very popular in Europe; and we had William Jennings Bryan and a lot of American historical examples of radical populists who’ve done very well. It’s not a phenomenon unheard of.

What is the biggest threat to the West. Is it ISIS?
I don’t think ISIS is the biggest threat to the West actually, it’s not big enough; it’s not the ideological threat. I think that the biggest threat to the West is the danger of radical populism and the biggest military threat to the West is Russia. It may be in a bad shape but it still has power.

Even though you say it is in a bad shape?
Just because they are poor and oil is not doing well, doesn’t mean they don’t have weapons. They have an army and they can use it like they are doing it in Ukraine. I think the state of their economy has nothing to do with whether they are a real threat. When Hitler invaded Poland he was losing money. Germany was actually economically dull. This is not a measure of military pressure.

Do you think that people in Europe – politicians and ordinary people – understand this threat?
No, I don’t think so. Because it’s been too long and there’s been peace for a long time, and people think even the idea of talking about war in Europe is absurd and ridiculous. And when you do talk about it you sound hysterical. And people simply don’t think about it.   

Top stories

The Slovak Shamrocks

Every Irish village has a Gaelic football team. So does Bratislava

Many people have never heard of the sport, but three months later, they’re playing in the European Gaelic Football championships.

12. jún
Illustrative stock photo

Pandemic has cut both job and salary offers. Labour market adapts to new trends

These were the trends of the Slovak labour market in the past year.

12. jún
An interactive statue by the Love Bank museum in Banská Štiavnica.

Instead of love, "garden gnomes" cause uproar in a Slovak UNESCO town

Your weekly dose of easy reads about Slovakia.

11. jún