SPIEGEL Interview with Timothy Garton Ash: 'We Are Still Doing Too Well'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash discusses the current crisis in the EU and the apparent lack of political passion for the project in the Merkel-Sarkozy generation. The author also explains why he believes young Europeans will start to mobilize if they fear the freedoms of their "easyJet Europe" are under threat.

Former French President Francois Mitterrand (left) and then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (right) in 1984: "Passionately engaged politicians with their personal memories of the war" Zoom
DPA

Former French President Francois Mitterrand (left) and then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (right) in 1984: "Passionately engaged politicians with their personal memories of the war"

SPIEGEL: Professor Garton Ash, let's assume you are a doctor and Europe is your patient. What's your diagnosis?

Garton Ash: Europe is a woman, now middle-aged, who has already had a number of heart attacks and is currently experiencing the biggest health crisis of her life, but one that need not be fatal.

SPIEGEL: What's making Europe sick?

Garton Ash: The reason the crisis can have such a strong effect is that the big engines of the European project are no longer running. I'm talking about the passionately engaged politicians with their personal memories of the war, the occupation, the dictatorship, the Holocaust and the Soviet threat. That's why they promoted the project. (United States President) Barack Obama means well, but he is not as interested in and committed to Europe as earlier American presidents were. Germany was a major engine of the European unification process for 40 years, but it isn't anymore. Add to that the crisis of a poorly conceived monetary union.

SPIEGEL: But one can hardly reproach the generation of Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy for not having the same background as people like (former German Chancellor Helmut) Kohl and (former French President François) Mitterrand.

Garton Ash: You can't blame them, but it is a fact. I had always hoped that 1989 would provide a new historic impetus. Since then, we have seen a generation of millions who have experienced dictatorships firsthand. Angela Merkel is part of that generation and yet it has been of little consequence to her.

SPIEGEL: What consequence should she draw from it?

Garton Ash: The power of conviction. If Angela Merkel had appealed to the Germans at the beginning of the crisis and had told them that saving the euro zone is in the national interest, things would be different in Germany and Europe today. The mood would be different. And the bailouts of at-risk countries in the euro zone would probably have cost fewer billions in the end.

SPIEGEL: A year ago, you said: " Come on, Frau Bundeskanzlerin, history is knocking at your door." And history only knocks once. Has she heard the knock yet?

Garton Ash: I think she's heard it. She has taken more decisive action recently and she has achieved results. But everything is still in the balance.

SPIEGEL: Democracy and capitalism have been twins in the West since the war. Is capitalism consuming democracy in this crisis?

Garton Ash: This financial capitalism, which has been so falsely developed in the past 20 years, indeed poses an existential threat -- not just for the European democracies, but for the entire West. Let's not kid ourselves: We are talking about a major economic and financial crisis for the West. Not for the entire world, not for the East, but for the West.

SPIEGEL: But not just for the West, given that China, with its enormous dollar and euro reserves, can hardly afford to look on without lifting a finger if Europe and the United States fail to bounce back.

Garton Ash: Of course there are dependencies, but it's a crisis of the West. It began in the West and it has affected us most severely. It is also accelerating the shift in the balance of power from West to East. The change is made all the more apparent by the fact that the West is now forced to ask the Chinese to invest and purchase government bonds.

SPIEGEL: This dependency is a reflection of the irony of the crisis.

Garton Ash: Yes, and what an irony it is! Compared to this shift in the balance of power, violent Islamism certainly remains a real challenge, but it will not shape world history. Many underestimated this in the last decade, starting with George W. Bush.

SPIEGEL: The global impact of the crisis could certainly motivate the Merkel generation to become more committed to Europe.

Garton Ash: Intellectually speaking, this argument is 100 percent true. However, it is doubtful whether it can have as much emotional appeal as the Red Army did in the past, when it was stationed in the middle of Europe. The Chinese aren't showing up with tanks, but with investments.

SPIEGEL: There are concerns circulating in Berlin that China could invest heavily in Greece, for example, if Athens were to leave the euro zone -- which would then make it something of a Chinese satrap in Europe.

Garton Ash: That's slightly exaggerated, but it's clear that 40 percent of all Chinese direct investment coming into Europe is concentrated in Southern and Eastern Europe. As a result, a Chinese lobby is gradually forming within the EU. And because we are dealing with economically weak countries in Southern and Eastern Europe, Chinese investments play an important role and also have political consequences.

SPIEGEL: What are they?

Garton Ash: For example, when it comes to the status of the market economy or the EU weapons embargo against China. The crisis in the European project hasn't become acute for most Europeans yet. And the danger, of course, is that when the crisis does affect their lives, it could be too late.

SPIEGEL: You are British and a pro-European, a rare mixture. Doesn't your country face the question of whether to either participate in Europe completely or not at all?

Garton Ash: Yes, now is the hour of truth for Great Britain, because if the euro zone is saved, there will be a fiscal union, which means a political union of the euro countries -- I suspect without Greece, but with a few new candidates. At the same time, the British government is trying to bring certain powers, in social policy, for example, from Brussels back to the island. This will hardly succeed. Then, in the next two, three or four years, we in Great Britain will face the final question: in or out?

SPIEGEL: And what will the answer be?

Garton Ash: You'll be surprised, but it could still be: in.

SPIEGEL: Do you really believe it will turn out that way?

Garton Ash: Yes, and that is why the conservative euroskeptics are doing their utmost to prevent it from coming to this existential alternative. The passive consensus in favor of Europe is bigger than it appears in Great Britain.

SPIEGEL: David Cameron recently had to listen to Nicolas Sarkozy tell him to shut up when it came to the euro.

Garton Ash: Sarkozy hit a sore spot. Cameron's position is inconsequential because he can hardly demand to be involved in all decisions on the future of the euro zone if Great Britain doesn't want to be part of it. It doesn't work that way. Either -- or.

SPIEGEL: (Former German Chancellor) Helmut Schmidt charges that the European elites don't know what is at stake in this crisis, because they don't know enough about economics. Is he right?

Garton Ash: I don't think that this is a decisive aspect. What's more important is that leaders like Helmut Schmidt or Helmut Kohl, as well as François Mitterrand, could expect a passive consensus within the population. Perhaps people weren't particularly enthusiastic about Europe or in Germany about the monetary union, but they accepted it because the elites told them: In principle, this is important and it's the right thing to do. Today this passive consensus is missing throughout Europe. As a result, there is a great deal more persuading to do in each country and it's significantly more difficult. Very little happened in this area for 10 years, so Merkel and Sarkozy are also paying a price for the failings of their predecessors.

SPIEGEL: They are paying the price and they are being punished for the crisis. There were changes of government in Portugal and Ireland through elections, Spain's Socialist government lost power, and both Giorgios Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi had to resign.

Garton Ash: Well, that's the way democracy works. We have to build this Europe with the material we have at our disposal. And this material is national democracy.

SPIEGEL: But is that enough? Since Europe has been in the grip of the financial crisis, old concepts are suddenly thriving once again. For example, Jürgen Habermas and Joschka Fischer say that it's time to democratize the European institutions. Can you see eye-to-eye with such proposals?

Garton Ash: That's how I know that, by now, I'm a veteran of the Europe debate: We've heard everything, it's all been there before, and it's all correct, in principle. But I don't believe that we always need a big project for a glowing European future, a European utopia on earth. Today, the key to Europe's renewal still lies in the national democracies. It is there that Europe will be reborn -- or not. We should simply apply Churchill's famous words about democracy to today's Europe: We have the worst form of all Europes, except for all those others that have been tried.

SPIEGEL: But the passion for Europe that you are missing has to have some sort of root.

Garton Ash: Of course, but it's enough for me that Europe, for the first time in its history, constitutes a political and economic union, as well as one of security policy, one in which most people are free and also enjoy prosperity, freedom of movement and a certain measure of social justice. And this Europe stretches from Portugal to Estonia and from Finland to Greece.

SPIEGEL: Is this an appeal for more modesty?

Garton Ash: For more pragmatism and realism. It's important that we recognize what we have achieved and that we manage to preserve our achievements in this difficult 21st century with China as a new world power, with climate change and with 7 billion people on earth.

SPIEGEL: The United States of Europe should no longer be the goal?

Garton Ash: We certainly have no lack of rhetoric. What we do lack are the emotions and the passion to say to people: Do you really want to risk what we have? The fact that a young man in Greece or Estonia can get on a plane in the morning and fly to Paris or Rome, without border controls and without exchanging money, and perhaps find a wife or friends there, decide to live or find a job there -- this is progress that no one should put at risk. It must be made clear to people that their "easyJet Europe," as I call this European freedom we experience every day, will be in jeopardy if the euro zone falls apart.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that if the euro fails, Europe too will fail?

Garton Ash: No, but I believe that we, most Europeans, are still doing too well or, to put it more brutally, not badly enough yet. Europe's biggest problem is its success, which is taken for granted even by young citizens of the Baltic countries, which didn't even exist on the map of Europe 21 years ago. I travel in Poland a lot and it's exactly the same thing there. But if the "easyJet Europe" of freedom is threatened, we will see a mobilization of young Europeans. I'm certain of that.

SPIEGEL: Professor Garton Ash, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Christoph Schwennicke and Gerhard Spörl. Professor Garton Ash gave the interview in German and it was translated into English by SPIEGEL ONLINE International.

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From DER SPIEGEL
About Timothy Garton Ash
  • Norbert Michalke
    Timothy Garton Ash straddles the worlds of academia and journalism, as a professor and the author of numerous books and a weekly column in Britain's Guardian newspaper. He traveled extensively through Eastern Europe, including during the Cold War, and wrote what is today considered to be one of the best accounts of the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989: "The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague." In "The File," he wrote about the records kept on him during a stay in East Germany by the communist regime's secret police, the Stasi. Garton Ash, 56, teaches as a professor of European Studies at Oxford.


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