NEW YORK—For James Kirchick, Europe is on the precipice of “a dark age.”
Kirchick, a journalist and visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, sees the rise of authoritarian leaders in Hungary and Poland as a threat to European democracy—drawing the continent closer to repeating the same mistakes of the 20th century. His book, titled “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age,” argues that the stability of postwar Europe is threatened by rising anti-Semitism, resurgent nationalism and an imperial Russia.
The recent events tearing at European unity are numerous; a referendum that led to Great Britain being the first European Union member state to pull out of the continent’s most ambitious democratic experiment yet; the rise of populist politicians like Viktor Orban in Hungary; a march of 60,000 nationalist Poles in Warsaw and the erosion of Poland’s political and civic institutions by a right-wing government; and elections in Germany and Austria that saw their politics shift towards the right on immigration.
Yet despite the book’s ominous title, Kirchick suggests “the end” is not here yet. The New York Transatlantic spoke to Kirchick about Europe’s future and how it can tackle the problems before it. This interview has been condensed and edited.
New York Transatlantic: Your book is titled “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age.” What are the warning signs that lead you to think Europe is at risk of entering the abyss?
James Kirchick: Well, there are several. I think the rise of illiberal democracy, which we first saw implemented in Hungary by Prime Minister Orban in 2014. He was really ahead of the curve in anticipating some of the political changes we’re seeing in the Western world now. Its spread to Poland and it has similar currents in the Brexit vote, the popularity of the National Front in France—and in the fact there is now a far-right party in the German parliament for the first time since the 1950s and [the election of] Donald Trump. On top of this we have an aggressive Russia that is meddling in the internal politics of Western countries like at no point since the Cold War. It’s also waging a war in Ukraine—having already perpetrated the first armed annexation of territory on the European continent since World War II. These are all very distressing signs.
In the 1930s, Europe was a powder keg with the rise of extreme political movements on the left and right. Do you think the European Union is strong enough to keep these forces at bay today?
We’re not anywhere close to a 1930s situation. While European economies are not doing great, they’re certainly not in the state they were then, with an economic depression, massive unemployment and massive inflation in Germany. In Spain and Italy for instance, where there’s high unemployment, that hasn’t led to far-right movements. It’s not that dire.
How much blame, if any, should the EU shoulder for the current mess of crises it finds itself in?
Most of the problems that Europe has are the fault of national governments and individual countries. The EU is a convenient scapegoat. I don’t blame the EU for the rise of populism or for how Russia is behaving the way it is.
So you mention the role of national governments in this. Are you referring to the rise of consensus politics among mainstream parties on the left and right?
Yes, for instance on immigration which I think is the major issue here, Chancellor Merkel herself said there is no alternative to her migration policies. Clearly people don’t accept that. So it’s no coincidence that the anti-immigration party called itself Alternative for Germany and they have presented voters with an alternative. I think you’re seeing most mainstream European political leaders are coming around with stricter policies dealing with external migration, or migration outside the EU But that’s democracy, the people do not want unlimited mass migration from the Middle East and North Africa. Frankly, I would agree with them. If you look at those communities, they haven’t really integrated very well. And politicians like Orban are pulling the consensus more in his direction.
Then what role do European leaders have in addressing the current migration crisis? Many have called for Europe to do its part.
There are short-term resolutions, such as increasing border security and investing in the European border agency known as Frontex. But it’s going to require a long-term investment, a sort of Marshall Plan for the Middle East and North Africa to make these regions more economically productive and politically stable – so people in these countries don’t feel the need to jump in the Mediterranean and risk their lives to come to Europe. There needs to be a cohesive EU foreign policy, where all member states pool their resources together and deal with the problem at its source.
In your book you suggest there are ways to address these crises in the political and economic realm, from better fiscal and monetary policies, a common asylum policy and a more assertive foreign policy to contain Russia. And much of Europe looked to Germany for leadership on these issues. Given continued negotiations over the makeup of a governing coalition in Germany and Merkel’s weakened position, what would be the alternative for Europe if she lost her chancellorship?
Germany has never really been the foreign policy leader of Europe. They’ve always tried to take a backseat given their historical circumstances. They’re not at all a military power as they spend 1.2 percent of their GDP on defense. On the issue of sanctions against Russia as a response to events in Ukraine, they were a leader but in other issues, there hasn’t been one. Look at Libya for instance, the Germans didn’t participate in that mission.
France took the lead there.
And the British took the lead. On Russia policy, the Baltic states may be small but their voices are being listened to. While the British will not be in the EU, they’ll remain an important force in NATO. You’re going to see Emmanuel Macron probably take more of a leadership position in Europe because regardless of how coalition negotiations pan out, Merkel is weakened. You’ve seen the beginning of the end of the Merkel era. But Macron is not strong enough to supplant her or Germany as the most economically powerful in Europe. He’s alienated countries in eastern Europe so it’s very difficult. It shows why the need for US leadership is important because there is no replacement for the unique role the U.S. can play as a leader in Europe.
You led to my next question. How can American foreign policy be used to help Europe chart a new way forward, especially at a time when China is deepening its links to Europe through the “One Belt, One Road” project?
If we had a president who understood the importance of Europe, transatlantic relations, NATO, European integration, we’d be in a completely different place right now. Unfortunately, we have a president who not only doesn’t understand any of these things, but whose instincts on all these questions are wrong. Yet the vacuum of leadership began under President Obama. He was more interested in Latin America, Africa and certainly in the “pivot to Asia.” This decline in American influence began before Trump and it’s obviously been exacerbated.
How should Europe respond to Russian aggression and its meddling in elections? Are sanctions an appropriate response?
Sanctions are the bare minimum. European governments need to go after dirty Russian money that are parked in various countries in real estate and other illicit areas. There should also be European laws banning foreign funding of political campaigns. The fact that Marine Le Pen can get a €9 million bank loan from a Russian bank, I think it’s a scandal. And they need to boost defense spending. I may not like how he goes about it, but Donald Trump is right when it comes to European countries not spending enough.
The French ambassador to the UN once told me that Europe has “no choice” but to assume a larger role on the global stage. What do you think that’s going to look like? Are we beginning to enter a post-American world?
If Europe doesn’t want the world to be shaped by countries like Russia and China, and other authoritarian powers, then they will need exert themselves more in a cohesive manner. In the 21st century, no European country is big enough to matter—to play at the same level as China or the United States or even Brazil. They have to pool their resources together and come together to act as one. They’ll be forced to do that, but whether or not if they are able to is a separate question.
Photo: James Kirchick, 34, signed books after a panel at New York University last Wednesday / Stephanie Sugars.