EUROPE BETWEEN HOPE AND FEAR – Dominique MOÏSI at de Balie in Amsterdam

Graphic by De Balie/Michelle van der Plas

Dominique Moïsi, French political scientist, author of many books and Special Advisor on Geopolitics to Institut Montaigne has recently (May, 2019) brought out his most recent work, “Leçons de Lumières”. Shortly available in English, it asks, what future for Europe?, and calls on European youth to ‘wake up!’. Dominique Moïsi  spoke in Amsterdam last night about his views on Europe, as the European elections begin today in the Netherlands.

Dominique Moïsi, a small wizened man, whose size belies the breadth and scope of his ideas. An anglophile who speaks in clear, measured tones, he outlines his vision of Europe for us, past, present and future. As we face what he describes as ‘probably the most important elections since 1979’ (the year the first EU elections were held), the writer highlights a lack of confidence in Europe and the Europeans. Instead, we find, what he terms ‘cultures of fear, humiliation and hope’. This political scientist makes reference to his 2009 book, The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World, which he argues is still largely relevant ten years later.   

This work distinguishes three types of fear – the fear of being invaded by migrants, the fear of being blown-up by terrorists and the fear of being left behind by more dynamic economies, notably those in the East. But, he argues, these fears have now been superseded by others, at the heart of which lies a crisis of ethics and identity. With three quarters of French youth not planning to vote in the European elections and only 34% of the French public claiming to relate to Europe and being European, rather than French, Moïsi points out that at a moment when ‘the need for Europe has never been greater, the appetite for it has never been lower.’ The Spinoza prize-winner mentions the French youth’s enthusiasm and appetite for the fate of the kingdom in Game of Thrones as opposed to that of the EU. Why, the youth ask him, are you still defending a dead utopia?

‘What is at stake, is the future of democracy.’ – Moïsi

However Moïsi is unequivocal in his response; ‘what is at stake, is the future of democracy’. And he asks openly, what did my generation do wrong? Locating the roots of populism in three key words: Anger, Humiliation and Nostalgia, he argues that the crisis we now face in Europe is one of both ethics and identity. The anger at what he calls the elite, is in part a product of what he calls the ‘explosion in inequality, real or perceived’. This in turn is a result of the humiliation which is reflected in movements like the gilles jaunes in France. A little humiliation can be a good thing, Moïsi says, as it can inspire one to greater things. However too much humiliation is very bad and for those in Europe who feel they have been ‘left behind’ by everything that is young, new and global, their sense of humiliation is overwhelming.

Someone like Macron, he suggests, increases this sense of humiliation simply by being what he is – too bright, too young and accomplished, too handsome. Thus a sense of nostalgia for a world that probably never fully existed, follows. A world where one was in control and felt confidence in one’s ability to progress. If one is confident, an individual has no problem being both French or British or Bulgarian and European. He blames his generation for failing what he terms, ‘the interrogation of identity’. ‘We have failed to teach a pedagogy of freedom and peace to the new Europeans’. And in spite of the optimism of Chancellor Kohl of Germany in the 1990’s, that the Erasmus programme, together with a combination of Italian pizza and German beer would prove sufficient to create a generation of young Europeans, it has not proved quite so simple. Moïsi also rightly points out that people who have always lived in peace and freedom have great difficulty in truly understanding the meaning of these things. He recalls travelling to Bucharest in 1961, which, although only two  hours from the West, felt like a completely different world, as if ‘the air there was rarefied’. ‘One does not teach these things’ he states, flatly and I tend to agree.

While on the subject of a crisis of identity, Moïsi makes reference to Brexit as perhaps the prime example of this phenomenon. ‘Brexit is an example of a country shooting itself in the foot in the most dramatic but illuminating manner.’ But he admits that the country for which he has the most fear, is France.  Macron has presented himself as the final bastion against populism and so if he is defeated, it may well help usher in another term for Trump in 2020. The prediction was recently made by Steve Bannon in an interview in France.

Will Europe be at the table or on the menu?

Yet Moïsi’s vision is much broader than this. In a world where there is less America and more China and Russia, the question for Europe is: ‘will it be at the table or on the menu’. The writer continues to point to China as what he terms ‘the best threat’. For the first time in centuries, the Western model is being challenged. China provides an alternative model for success that does not include liberal democracy. Indeed, he suggests that China might ask what sort of leaders a liberal democracy provides – ‘a selection of the strangest individuals’. Thus, for Moïsi, China forces Europeans to defend what it is they truly believe in, unlike other threats such as migration. It forces one to be excellent.

Looking ahead, Moïsi is clear – ‘follow the model of the Nordic lights’ he declares. He points to key factors such as the modest , honest nature of the state, the equality between men and women and what he terms, the socially acceptable differences between the very rich and the very poor. This means that the concept of ‘we’ remains intact and is not in danger of being replaced by us vs. them which lies at the heart of all populism. ‘Populism is a refusal of complexity’ as he puts it. He predicts that the populists will win a maximum of 180 seats out of the 700 + available in the European parliament. This is clearly not a majority but might be enough to block various initiatives and create stagnation. ‘One cannot play with history lightly’ he warns. Wise words indeed.    Souwie Buis    22nd May 2019