"This could save Europe"


This is the original English version of the Interview with Timothy Garton Ash which was published in German in profil on June 15th 2020. 


“This could save Europe”


Author and historian Timothy Garton Ash talks to profil about the future of the EU after Corona, the weaknesses of the monetary union, common debt and falling statues in Great Britain.


Interview: Tessa Szyszkowitz via Videolink


Timothy Garton Ash, 64, is Professor for European Studies at Oxford University. Since Stasi, the secret service of the German Democratic Republic, thought the young historian to be a British spy in divided Berlin of the 1980ties, he has long become part of European history himself. His analysis is listened to in European capitals.


His most recent book “Free Speech, Ten Principles for a Connected World” was based on a world-wide research project, which he conducted with his students in Oxford about limits and rules of freedom of expression in a glbal dialogue. In another project, Europe’s Stories, works on studies about what moves young Europeans. (europeanmoments.com)


Garton Ash regularly writes for “The New York Review of Books” and “The Guardian”, where he often commented on the long and winding road to Brexit, which Ash deeply regrets.


Profil: “I can’t breathe” is the slogan of spring 2020. It combines the experience of Coronacrisis and racist inequality. What does this mean?


Garton Ash: This is justified anger at seeing another black guy killed infront of our eyes. Interestingly, it demonstrates a continued soft power of the United States because so many people in Europe are mobilized by something that happened in Minneapolis. Secondly, it is a generational phenomenon. Young Europeans think this is a moment to fix what is wrong with our society: inequality.


Profil: There are large protests in the UK, during which the statue of slave trade and philanthropist Edward Colston was torn down. In Oxford you also have a discussion around a statue of controversial philanthropist Cecil Rhodes. Should it move to a museum?


Ash: No, Cecil Rhodes should not go to a museum. The small statue is part of an architectural ensemble on the second floor of a College facade. There is no one size ifts all rule where is the statue, whats is the context. What did the man or women do. This should be done by democratic and peaceful means. It is pretty amazing that a statue of a really extreme profiteer of slave trade like Edward Colston was still up there in a multiracial city. Psychologically the impact of toppling of a Stalin or Saddam statue is immense, it is a turning point. Germany has had to deal with its past in a very profound way and it is certainly a good idea for Britain to do the same.


Profil: On June 19th the EU-leaders meet for their summit. Do you expect the proposal for a 750 billion Euro recovery fund by the EU-comission to be approved?


Garton Ash: That’s what tends to happen in the EU. In most cases deals and compromises are made. Sometimes small countries hold out, but usually, if the big countries are behind it, a compromise is being found. I would not abolutely count on it because it has to be decided unanimously and Austria could theretically stop it. And less theoretically Hungary could stop it. But Denmark is already starting to say, yes, we will find a compromise. So we should be optimistic. I think there are two hugely significant things happening. Firstly: Europe as a whole responds impressively to the Corona crisis. Secondly Angela Merkel broke not one but two German taboos: She agreed to debt Trotz and to giving money as grants rather than loans. The combination of these two huge things is the best news I have heard from the EU in a long time.


Profil: Did Angela Merkel understand the gravity of this moment for Europe or was Emmanuel Macron just persuasive enough?


Garton Ash: It is a wonderful example for the “List der Geschichte”. Yes, Macron had put a lot of pressure, yes, she has been appreciative of the moment in history. But the decisive thing it seems was the verdict of the

Bundesverfassungsgericht in Karlsruhe about the independence of the European Central Bank. It tried to end Europeanization and it has done the opposite effect. Because we can no longer simply rely on the ECB to do whatever it takes. This was probably the decisive moment that pushed Merkel into this. It is very big news. And the fact that in the first opinion poll 51 percent of Germans approved, I find fascinating. It could not be closer but things are moving that way.


Profil: Although the economic crisis will hit deep we see some new European solidarity?

Garton Ash: It is a combination of two kinds of causes. Gradual and sudden. For the last ten years people like me had been making the argument that If you say A you also have to say B. If you have a Monetary Union – that’s A – then you also need to make sure – B - that Southern Europe is not permanently doing worse than Northern Europe. The catalyst is the Covid crisis. The silver lining is that noone can say that the Italians or Spaniards have themselves to blame for a virus that comes from China. I think that moves the popular feeling in Germany very significantly.


Profil: Angela Merkel and Ursual von der Leyen now need to convince the “Greedy Four” to support the recovery package. Austria’s Sebastian Kurz - together with the Dutch, Danish and Swedish Prime ministers – was the first to object against the plan.


Garton Ash: Fundamentally this is not an argument of selfinterest versus selflessness. It is an argument between shortsighted selfinterest and enlightened, long-term selfinterests. In the long term it is even more in the interests of those four countries that the entirety of the eurozone and the EU should work well. This is so even more for Austria than for Germany. Germany is a big country with a strong economy, it could do well even on its own, too. But a smaller economy, even if it functions well, depends on the totality of a bigger market.


Profil: Austria fears that we are moving towards a “Schuldenunion”. But that is not really true, is it?

Garton Ash: One has to be honest - there is an element of debt mutualisation in the sense that the EU will borrow money on the markets. But it is completely different from Eurobonds. This idea would have been the mutualisation of old debts. This now is a one-off to recover from a natural desaster. It does not follow that you need a transfer union or fiscal union. What is needed now is that this thing works. And works for Italy and Spain as well as for Germany and Austria. If there is an acceptance of that it does not necessarily mean it perfects the federal Union.


Profil: With an effective recovery program for the Covid-19 crisis the EU could then show that it could act as a centralized authority?


Garton Ash: My old friend Giuliano Amato said that the EU is an Unidentified Flying Object. When people now speak of an Hamiltonian moment I think it is misleading. The EU is an UFO, it is a unique character. One thing we can say for sure: It is better to be together than apart. If the EU wants to still be strong in ten years time, it simply has to show that it delivers.


Profil: So how is it possible that countries who are among the richest in the world and who do profit greatly from the EU Single Market like Austria fail to see this historic moment?


Garton Ash: I have sympathy with those who are sceptical. If this European Monetary Union did not exist already, I woud not recommend to invent it in this form. It is a half way house of a Monetary Union extended in such diverse economies. The Northern economic culture is very different from South European culture. What I do think is troubling, that people perhaps in Austria are not understanding the long term self-interest part. Austria has done very well from the Monetary Union. Germany as well. One reason citizens don’t see that is that the politicians have not been telling them about that. The politicians have been telling them about all the problems with the South for years and years and taking all the credit for what went well. Nobody has bothered to say that one of the reasons why these countries are doing well is the Monetary Union.


Profil: I have every sympathy for citizens who lost their jobs and sit at home and are sceptical about paying for other countries. But I do have problems to unterstand finance and prime ministers of EU member states who try to use this reluctance in populations now for their domestic political means. It is a huge political responsibility that they carry and this moment could make or break the EU.

Garton Ash: I could not agree more with you. And the trouble is that instead of leadership we have followership. Some governments are following public opinion rather than leading it. And then there is Angela Merkel. She has been so impressive as a human being, as an embodiment of the best Germany we ever had: Moderate, principled, pragmatic leadership. A female leader with all the virtues of female leadership in this crisis. The one thing where she has not been great on was on the European front. If in the last year of her office she can get this right, then she is looking at a very sweet place in the history books.


Profil: Merkel needs to lock it in and leave?


Garton Ash: She does not have to win an election anymore. So she can do it. Her prestige is so high now and her popularity is so overwhelming – she is no hostage to any successor in the CDU anymore. In a sense it is a gift from God to have such a moment.


Profil: Maybe the Corona crisis will open a few doors for the EU to reestablish itself?

Garton Ash: There is an interesting broader point here: There are five big fractures that we have already seen before the Covid crisis: Transatlantic tensions because of Donald Trump; Brexit because of Brexit; the North-South divide because of the Euro crisis; the split between West and East because of the erosion of democracy in Poland and Hungary; and the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine. So the question one has to ask for the Post-Covid-world is what it is going to be for each of those five fractures. Is it going to make them deeper or will the EU now be able to overcome them?


Profil: Can the EU heal the rift between North and South with the recovery fund?


Garton Ash: What we are talking about so far is the possibility that this recovery fund is the breakthrough - that it saved the EU. If it goes through on June 19 and if the money is effectively dispersed. We need now fast and unbeurocratic aid. The EU is bad at that usually. It depends if Italy is at the end convinced that it got enough support. But there is a good possibility. The danger in my view is what we can win on the North-South-Front we might lose on the West-East fracture.


Profil: Why? Will not Poland and Hungary also get some aid out of this deal?

Garton Ash: I am terribly worried about Hungary and Poland. For two years now Hungary is not a democracy anymore. As long as Victor Orban has his emergency powers, Hungary is effectively a dictatorship at least for the time being. The emascalation of the rule of law is advancing rapidly. While both these countries are receiving billions of EU funds. They are quite literally having their cake an eating it. It’s Boris Johnson’s dream come true – cakeism works for Hungary. I really think it is very important that in the next seven year financial framework the EU will establish for the first time a connection between the Europe of Money and the Europe of Values. The rules of transparency should be imposed on all member states. If you get EU money you have to have transparency, you have to have rule of law.


Profil: Why does this pose a problem to the previous point?


Garton Ash: I think the price that Poland and Hungary will extract for saying yes to the European recovery plan and will accept that most of the money will be going to Southern Europe is that the EU soft paddles on this issue. And I am awfully afraid looking at the way Ursula von der Leyen and to some extent even Merkel have handled this so far is that we will accept this. That the EU addresses the North-South divide at the expense of the East-West divide.


Profil: What will Poland and Hungary ask precicely ask for?


Garton Ash: The name of the game is “Cakeism”. EU feeds the hand that bites it. Orban plays this brilliantly. Macciavelli would take his hat off. He called it the peacock dance, two steps forward, one steps back. What we need to do is if we believe in a Europe of values is to move the EU to a different place. Where there are stronger controls in terms of transparency and rule of law. The price is a seductively easy one for Brussels to pay inorder to get the agreement of all to the reconvery package - but the EU should not do it.


Profil: You called on the EPP to expell Fidesz. Would that be a useful side step.


Garton Ash: Donald Tusk said: We will address this after the Covid-crisis. When is after? Is this after the pandemic or the economic crisis? EPP should have done months and years ago to kick them out. But it is not a substitute for doing the structural things in the EU for the next seven-year period.


Profil: Like how?

Garton Ash: I want European leaders to be more outspoken when it comes topolitical problems. Point Number 2: I don't want a special status being put on Hungary. Then they would be quite justifiably saying that the EU has double standards. We need the same approach for all member states, which says: These are our common monies and these are our common values and they come together or not at all. We need rigorous effective structures for anti-corruption and transparency – whether it is Greek olive farmers or Hungarian politicians. The EU must be careful that their monies are not becoming slushfunds for populist governments.


Profil: However, when David Cameron took his Tory-party out of the EPP it spiralled even faster away from Europe and basically fascilitated Brexit.


Garton Ash: I heard this argument one time too many from people who do not want to take tough action against authoritarian rulers. How extreme do you want it to get before you say enough is enough? Orban is much cleverer than Cameron. Cameron simply did not understand very well how important the EPP was. Orban will pay a price to stay. Please notice that Orban is not totally secure in the saddle. His great capital Budapest has an opposition mayor. There will come a time in the next few years when more people will notice the extraordinary affluence of Orban’s family and his cronies and the appalling state of the hospitals in which Hungarians have been dying form covid and other diseases. If Europe continues to pay attention in five to ten years time Hungary will come back to the democratic fold. The EU has to create the conditions so the Hungarians can do that. My fear that Ursula von der Leyen is very much on a German Mitteleuropa line: East-Central-Europe is just so important to us, it is almost part of the German and Austrian economy that we have to keep good relations because they are so important to our economy. Austria would also be on that line. In a short time thinking this is understandable, but it is very bad in the long term for the EU.


Profil: Austria and Germany are also so soft on all sides because these countries feel that they are the battlefield for all powers. That also goes for the pro-Russian stance of these countries, if you compare it with the British stance.


Profil: To your fracture One: It is obvious how to overcome the Transatlantic problem…


Garton Ash: If Joe Biden becomes president because of Trump’s mishandling of the Covid-19-pandemic that is very good news for democracy and for the European project. The fact that Putin has badly mishandeld the Covid crisis and the collapse of the oil price has dramatically weakened Russia – so objectively speaking Russia is less of a threat today.


Profil: And on point 2: Brexit could be handled in a harder way than we thought?

Garton Ash: This extremely incompentent Johnson government, this is now clear to me, is going to do everything possible to get Britain out of the EU-Singe Market at the end of the year come what may so that whatever the negative consequences are, they will point to Covid not to Brexit. That is politically quite clever and in terms of the national interest extremly cynical.


Profil: Seeing Trump, Johnson and Bolsenaro in trouble, could this not start the end of populism?


Garton Ash: It is difficult to have a generalized political read-out like that. We did extraordinary piece of polling in my research group: 53 percent of Young Europeans are saying authoritarian states are dealing better with climate crisis than democracies do. Maybe they might now also think that authoritarian states deal better with pandemics. But in fact it is not authoritarian states states versus democracy - it is Asia versus the West. The best management of Covid-19 we saw in Asian democracies like Taiwan and South Korea. In the West it is a different story: Trump and Bolsenaro are personally responsible. Johnson is a different category, at least his government in principle tried to follow the advice of science. Their problem is that they are just a second rate government.


Profil: But we have a second rate government because it was propelled by Brexit populism into power. Good weather politicians are just not good in crisis…

Garton Ash: But will people put those things together? I am not sure. Another lesson is that women rule better in crisis. Rather cautious is an encouraing lesson that comes out of it. If you look to the future there is a real chance we come out with a better kind of policy and politics. If EU manages to do it well to get us to the green new deal than that is huge and the young Europeans will be very big. It will be enourmously helpful. The danger if we don't get it right. We would be even more divided and the Salvinis or even more radical populists everywhere will be saying, the divide gets deeper.


Profil: Your research has shown that 71 percent of young Europeans would like to see the introduction of an Universial Basic Income. That is an interesting call.


Garton Ash: There is a strong popular desire to move in that direction. Oddly enough we all denounce Milton Friedman as terrible neo-liberal but actually he called for a negative income tax. During the Covid-19 crisis many have now been paid directly by the states to compensate for their income reduction. What Freedman was proposing was that if someone is earning below a certain level instead of charging them income tax you give them a negative income tax. In my book that would be a great way to start.


Profil: The frugal four would would not like that?

Garton Ash: Of course there would be hundreds of objections. But if people want to follow public sentiment, then it seems that universal basic incom might actually be what the people want. It is a cautious way to start. And sell it easier to conservatives if it is coming from Milton Friedman.


Profil: Not Marxism.

Garton Ash: But Friedmanism.


Profil: Are you also coming to the conclusion that liberal politics are repsonsible for everything that went wrong in Eastern Europe?

Garton Ash: I am just now writing an essay about the future of liberalism. Liberals did not get it all wrong. The first 15 years they got a hell of a lot right. If you and I had sat on the 10th of November 1989 in Vienna an someone told us that all of Europe would soon turn into liberal democracies we would not have believed it. But then a certain hubris set in. And the hubris resulted in the financial crisis and in a really important sense we are still living in a 2009 world. It was trying to go too far too fast and to some extent in the wrong direction. Liberalism was reduced to one dimension: Economic liberalism. Economic liberalism was then reduced to free market liberalism. We need to restore the other sense of liberalism, the cultural, social sense should also be be there.


Profil: One outcome could be that solidarity is back?

Garton Ash: That is the challenge. Solidarity is a key element. In one thing the populists are not all wrong: We needed a redistribution of respect. Liberals and elites have not respected certain parts of the society enough. In the covid-crisis this was changed: There is new respect for key workers. With this pandemic we now see a kind of postwar moment. Is it more a 1918 moment or a post- 1945 moment – that is the question.


Profil: Which one do you think it is?

Garton Ash: Both are possible. It depends a great deal on political leadership. It is said far too often and it is such a cliché, but a skilled leader could change much right now.






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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz