SPIEGEL Interview with Timothy Garton Ash 'Obama Is Certainly a European'

Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash discusses the demise of Europe's social democrats, threats to the European Union posed by populist nationalists, the imminent change of government in Great Britain and America's rapid slide to the left.

SPIEGEL: Professor Garton Ash, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression voters have turned away from the social democrats and socialists in European elections. Isn't this paradoxical?

Timothy Garton Ash: I think there's an explanation for it. First, voters apparently feel that the conservatives and liberals are more competent when it comes to economic policy. Second, we are witnessing a return to nationalism as a reaction to the great crisis. And when that happens, voters tend to move to the right rather than to the left, in some cases quite far to the right.

SPIEGEL: It would seem that leftists, the critics of capitalism, would stand to benefit from a crisis of capitalism.

Garton Ash: In essence, you have two social democratic parties in Germany, just as we do in Great Britain -- with some minor differences. David Cameron's Conservatives are taking (former Prime Minister) Tony Blair's approach, except when it comes to European policy. And there is no decisive difference between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in Germany, at least not by the standards of the last century.

SPIEGEL: In other words, we lack ideological differences, and we are all social democrats?

Garton Ash: I think so. We are not talking about capitalism as such, but about the question of which form of capitalism works best in our country. And then there is the question of competency. Our governments are behaving more and more like managers. After 10 years, voters are dissatisfied with the current management, and along comes a new one.

SPIEGEL: The left lost its identity as a result of politicians like Tony Blair and (former German Chancellor) Gerhard Schröder, who believed in the free market and abandoned old social democratic principals. Isn't that the reason for their defeat throughout Europe?

Garton Ash: I don't think so. In each case, the voter is voting for a version of European social liberal democracy. Perhaps a party that calls itself conservative can provide him with the better social democracy.

SPIEGEL: At least 15 percent of the new European parliament will consist of right-wing extremists, protest parties and joke parties. What does this mean for Europe's future?

Garton Ash: If I remember correctly, Bertolt Brecht said: "The womb is fertile still, which bore this fruit." We are deluding ourselves if we believe that the temptation of xenophobia and national populism no longer exists, and we shouldn't be surprised to see these forces being strengthened in the course of a major economic crisis. We must make the social market economy credible again as the central solution for the middle class.


About Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash, 53, is a professor of history at Oxford. From 1978 to 1982 he lived in East and West Berlin. Later, East German officials banned him from traveling into the country because of his reporting Later he lived as a writer in Poland, Hungary and then Czechoslovakia, where he became friends with the dissident Václav Havel. Garton Ash's most recent book is "Free World: America, Europe and the Surprising Future of the West."
Garton Ash: There are two major domestic policy challenges for the European Union. First: Creating meaningful work for the majority of society. And second: the integration of fellow citizens of non-European descent. These are two sides of the same coin. After all, what are the populists and xenophobes saying, from Latvia to Portugal, and from Finland to Greece? They are saying: We're in bad shape, and the others are at fault. Both parts of that sentence must be addressed politically.

SPIEGEL: In Great Britain, the racist British National Party has won two seats for the first time.

Garton Ash: The same thing also happened in Romania, Finland and Hungary. There are comparable developments everywhere. Until now, the Conservatives in Great Britain have always managed to neutralize the extreme right, just as the CDU/CSU has done in Germany. This time, not only has the BNP won its first two seats, but the anti-European UK Independence Party (UKIP) has even won more votes than Labour. Now that's unsettling.

SPIEGEL: Do the successes of right-wing extremists and the defeat of the left also indicate a decline in solidarity among voters?

Garton Ash: Solidarity is certainly a European value, but our willingness to display solidarity also has narrow limits, especially toward the poor, and even more so when they are of non-European origin. This stems partly from the fact that we have developed social welfare states that are difficult to sustain, especially in global competition. The integration of immigrants in the United States is easier, because there is no social welfare state there.

SPIEGEL: While Europe slips to the right, the United States, under Barack Obama, is discovering the social market economy -- and is slipping to the left.

Garton Ash: Soon they'll be more European than we are.

SPIEGEL: How do you explain that?

Garton Ash: Six years ago, we had the manifesto of Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida in connection with the discussion of the Iraq crisis, pitting Europe, with its socially progressive values against the United States. In that respect Obama, in terms of his system of values, is certainly a European. This is because the middle class in the United States has experienced the brutality and injustice of the unbridled Anglo-Saxon free market economy firsthand -- in the healthcare system, for example.


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