Sir Ian Kershaw spoke to a packed room in the Hague this afternoon about his latest book, Roller-Coaster Europe. An expert on modern Germany and considered by many to be one of the world’s leading experts on Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, Kershaw turns his attention to the history of post-war Europe in this latest offering. A quietly spoken man, of modest statue and typically understated British humour, he spoke with us of his thoughts on European integration, globalization and the return of populism in Europe. In spite of the turbulence suggested by the title of his book, he is generally optimistic about the future of Europe and reminded the audience of the incredible progress made, in terms of peace and prosperity in the last seventy years.
In particular, he argued for what he termed a three-fold transformation in Europe during this time period. An economic one, which he defined in terms of a shift from the post-depression dominance of Keynesian economics to a more Neoliberal approach. A political one, most importantly, the fall of the Berlin wall and the unification of Europe and, more recently, the communications transformation that began in the 2000’s and now dominates all aspects of life in the form of social media. Perhaps most importantly, the historian focuses on what he terms the ‘Janus face of globalization’ as a strong driver of both prosperity and populism in modern day Europe. Increasing integration between states and regions has resulted in enormous economic growth. Yet the speed and strength which with this wave of change has swept the world, has caused some to feel alienated and left behind. These are often the older, less educated members of society who associate the nation state with the security and stability that seems to be missing in contemporary society.
Too easy to blame Brussels
Sir Ian is quick to point out that the rise of populism in Europe, which he traces back to the late 1980’s/ early 1990’s can not be blamed, as some historians do, on Brussels. Although the European Union’s lack of direct democratic mandate is well-known and documented, Kershaw argues that not enough has been done to make the EU popular. He acknowledges that for many local politicians, it is all too easy to take the credit for EU initiatives and blame Brussels when things go wrong. I couldn’t agree more. In this vein, Brexit may be viewed as the result of an unfortunate confluence of justifiable notions of British independence from Europe and unjustifiably xenophobic response to immigration. Although Kershaw positions himself squarely in the remain camp, he acknowledges that there has always been ‘a long root of semi-detachment’ with regards to Britain’s relationship with Europe. He points out that few people in Britain can tell you who their European MEP is and that two thirds of British newspapers are anti-European. Summing this up, he suggests that in modern times, ‘Britain has always looked more across the Atlantic than the Channel’.
‘The Eurozone is the weakest element of the EU’
Interestingly, he notes that for most Brits, there was never the same sense of mission and idealism associated with Europe as he notices among the German population. Describing Germany as the key to Europe, he maintains that it, more than any other country in Europe ‘has learnt from the horrors of its past’. What’s more, he is confident that Europe’s economic powerhouse is now ‘a very solid democracy’ and will continue to ‘thrive’ as such in years to come. With this in mind, he agrees that the departure of Angela Merkel will be felt strongly in Germany and beyond but agrees that she has been ‘a very reactive politician’. Germany, and indeed Europe, he suggests, is in need of ‘a more dynamic person’ who will be open to reform. However, he admits that this is unlikely given the current political landscape in Germany. Although largely positive about Europe’s largest economy and its influence on Europe, Kershaw draws attention more than once to the country’s influence on European economic policy, specifically its handling of the Greek debt crisis. What’s more, he expresses concern at the interference of the European Commission (largely backed by Germany) in the Italian budget and questioned their strong reaction to it. ‘Would the sky fall in if Italy did run a deficit of 2.5% of its GDP?’ he asks. In matters economic, Sir Ian places himself squarely in the anti-austerity camp and goes so far as to suggest that the EU might well create more problems than it fixes with its strong anti-inflationary stance.
Asked what the next roller-coaster ride for Europe might be however, the world-renowned historian suggests that another economic crisis might be on the horizon and if the Italian economy fails this time, the ECB will not be able to bail it out. Yet in spite of such comments, Kershaw is generally optimistic about Europe and the European Union. Although he acknowledges the possibility that one might ultimately have a union of ‘different speeds or even concentric circles’, he is confident that disintegration of the Union itself is ‘inconceivable’. He points to the great complexities raised by Brexit as evidence of just how entangled Europe really is and how very likely it is to stay that way. Souwie Buis 2nd November 2018
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