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Can Europe prove that it’s capable of finding energy in its contradictions and differences and reinvent itself as a place the whole world respects? William Murphy/flickr, CC BY-SA

‘Europe is suffering multi-morbidity’: a conversation with Claus Offe in Berlin

The writer-political thinker Albert Camus once commented that the true source of strength of modern Europe has been its ability to live on its contradictions, flourish amid its differences and, under pressure, to reinvent itself as “a civilisation on which the whole world depends even when rejecting it”.

The remark was anti-fascist, a sharp knife designed to cut through fantasies of European unification, by ideology or military force. It expressed equal contempt for the violence of European colonialism, which Camus knew well from his native Algeria, and for all forms of nationalism. “I love my country too much to be a nationalist” was his shorthand formula for casting doubt on the nationalist fetish of borders, nation state jurisdictions and pompous talk of the “essence” and “purity” of nations and national identity.

A generation later, this whole democratic way of thinking about a post-nationalist and diverse Europe is besieged by an assortment of menacing trends, Claus Offe explains over lunch during my recent visit to Berlin. A sage septuagenarian with a gift for no-nonsense political analysis, Offe is among Europe’s best-known public intellectuals. He specialises in straight talk. So I begin by asking him to summarise what’s going on in Europe.

Claus Offe/Author provided

“Our times resemble the 1920s”, he replies. “We’re witnessing the accumulation of various crises that are rapidly putting the whole European project under tremendous pressure. Illiberal forces are on the rise. Middle classes are shrinking. There’s populist hatred of ‘the establishment’ and fascination with strong leaders. Europe is suffering multi-morbidity. Our problems, and the promises that are being broken, are now far greater than anything money could possibly buy, even if large sums of EU transfer funds were suddenly made available, and spent wisely, in a spirit of solidarity.”

Economic stagnation

An obvious source of the present European malaise is economic stagnation, which has now lasted nearly a decade. Offe recalls the work of the American economist Robert Gordon, who’s shown that in the history of modern capitalism, the median economic growth is less than 1% per annum, and who calculates that in the face of “headwinds”, such as a rapidly ageing population, soaring inequality and festering social ills, a new round of innovation-driven growth is highly improbable.

“Europe’s economic problems aren’t over”, Offe tells me. “Stagnation is combined with rising household, investor and public sector debt. Italy has an unstable banking system. Income and wealth inequality gaps are still widening. Product and process innovations that favour both labour and capital are in short supply. Unemployment stops millions of people from servicing their debts. And there’s a worrying new statistical category: young Europeans who are classified as NEET because they are ‘not in education, employment or training’.”

Europe’s macroeconomic situation has left a whole generation of young people who, not in employment, education or training (NEET), are struggling to get a foot on the ladder of life.

It’s said that bad luck comes in big bundles. Europeans are feeling the pinch of the proverb in this unfolding set of crises, he says. The social injustices and destabilising effects of a stagnant economy are one thing.

There’s also the Putin factor. The military assertiveness of the Russian regime is spreading fear and division among the people of Poland and the Baltic states. It’s also undermined the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood Policy.

“The Russian occupation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine is destabilising the Ukraine state and producing military and international law conflicts that we’ve not seen, apart from the post-Yugoslav wars, since the end of World War Two.”

The Putin factor is spreading fear and division in Ukraine and the Baltic states. Sasha Maksymenko/flicker

Russian aggression compounds the swelling uncertainty and failure in other policy areas, Offe continues. It’s as if there’s a conspiracy of trends determined to bring ill fortune to Europe. He gives another example: the unhappy coincidence of sluggish growth and high unemployment with the escalating refugee crisis. The combination is proving to be “a real godsend for the populist right in Europe”.

Refugee crisis and populist trouble

Populist movements and parties, he says, are trying to stir up public trouble by stringing together the problems of stagnation, refugees and threats of terrorism into a single story. He’s adamant that their simple-minded story-telling must be resisted. In this worsening European crisis, in matters of intellect and politics, recognising the complexities of the multiple dynamics really matters.

Offe underscores the point by noting that Europe’s entanglement in the ongoing wars in Libya, Iraq and Syria, in its neighbouring regions, is among these multiple dynamics. Europe is at war. It’s been drawn into the devilish “confrontation between the two regional powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia” and the military rivalries of Russia, Turkey, and the USA, “each with its own and openly conflicting military agenda”.

The spread of IS-inspired jihadist “suicide missions and random killings of civilians” is another matter. He tells me that some acts of violence, including the December attack on the Christmas market in Berlin, are products of “administrative and police failure”. Contrary to the populists, most acts of violence are “home-grown”, he insists. “This violence has little or nothing directly to do with refugees. The discomforting truth is that the big majority of known attackers are citizens, and often natives, of EU member states, often with family roots in the Middle East and North African region.”

The trouble for Europe is that the in-flow of refugees “is not going to end any time soon”, he emphasises. It’s not just that “human beings are a migratory species” or that “building fences on salt water is for technical reasons impossible”. The policies of the European Union are in disarray. Its governing capacity is weak.

The Dublin agreement, which placed the responsibility of settling refugees on the states where they first arrived in Europe, was defeated by wall builders in Hungary, Slovenia, Macedonia and other states. The European Home Affairs Ministers agreement (in September 2015) to allocate at least 120,000 stateless peoples throughout the EU was stillborn; more than a year later, figures from the European commission show that only 8,162 people have found a permanent home. The Schengen Agreement, an open-border arrangement that enables passport-free movement of citizens across most of the EU bloc, an arrangement that was among the “most effective and popular accomplishments of European integration”, is crumbling.

Europe must come to terms with the reality of the long-term in-flow of refugees. European Commission DG ECHO/flickr

The EU-Turkey deal, signed in March 2016, is not working either, and probably can’t be made to work. Refugees continue to arrive in large numbers in Greece and Italy, where they face appalling living conditions; the promised funding of several billion euros hasn’t yet been provided to the satisfaction of Turkey, which is hardly a “safe third country”. Yet more refugees from the war zones are surely on their way, Offe says, driven from their homes by uncivil wars, food shortages and climate change. “People aren’t frivolously leaving their home country. They leave because their situations are intolerable, and because Europe is an attractive safe haven. Syria’s just the tip of the iceberg. Waves of Kurdish refugees may be next.”

With more than 1.3 million Syrians now believed to be trapped by the al-Assad government’s “surrender or die” tactics in Idlib and at least 40 other besieged communities across the country, Offe’s assessment hardly seems exaggerated. With an additional 1.1 million Syrians facing the threat of siege, Frauke Petry of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage and other populist xenophobes are rubbing their hands together in glee.

Offe detests their tactics, and their thinking. It’s not just that “Europe’s political elites still haven’t understood that the gates of ‘fortress Europe’ can’t be fully closed”, or that most European governments are callously flouting humanitarian norms. The framing of refugees as foreigners who don’t belong in a Europe that is supposedly “full” simply doesn’t make sense, Offe says. “If all the refugees who’ve so far arrived had been settled fairly in the member states, then the share of refugees in each country would be less than 1% of their total population.” That’s hardly “an unbearable economic burden”.

Offe is quick to point out as well that populists are normally silent about the mounting costs of wall building, border protection and potentially lost trade. He cites a recent European Commission report that notes that lost business, steeper freight and commuter costs, interruptions to supply chains, and government outlays for tighter border policing will probably cost the whole European economy at least 18 billion euros each year.

Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station in September 2015. Mstyslav Chernov/Wikipedia Commons

Populists, he notes, are equally silent about the long-term economic benefits of migration. When refugees are seen in terms of labour markets, a subject he’s studied and written about for nearly half a century, the new arrivals are on balance long-term assets. “I don’t underestimate the challenges of integration. It will take a generation. Many refugees are burdened by bad memories of terrible atrocities. More than half come equipped with only elementary school qualifications. But Syrian medical doctors and many other refugees are unpaid-for human capital. Through time, they’re going to fill the demographic and labour-market gaps of rapidly ageing European societies”.

The German burden

The galling fact is that Germany, home to more than a million refugees, has been forced disproportionately to bear the costs of the catastrophes suffered by people from war-ravaged countries. Data collected and analysed by the Pew Research Centre and Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency, show that Germany gave refuge to more than 1.1 million people in 2015, the highest annual number received by a European country during the past 30 years. The year 2016 saw another 300,000 people arrive in Germany.

So our conversation shifts to Angela Merkel, and her impending political fate. For someone whose leftist sympathies run deep, Offe’s empathy with her migration policies is surprising. On this issue, he’s clearly on her side. He’s scathing about Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders (who in response to the Berlin attack tweeted a provocative photo of Angela Merkel, with blood on her hands) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his dismissal of the refugee issue as a “German problem” and Chancellor Merkel’s policy as “moral imperialism”.

Offe makes a prediction that doubles as a warning: the refusal of the majority of European member states to bear their fair share of the burden is going to affect them, too. His warning has a sting in its tail. This time around, he says, pausing, Angela Merkel miscalculated the degree of member state support for burden sharing. But Germany’s leadership in the refugee crisis “unwittingly shows that when Brussels fails to deliver effective policies Berlin and Germany’s leadership can’t substitute for the European Union”.

But what about those loud voices, within Germany’s AfD and elsewhere, who are saying that heavy intakes of mainly Muslim refugees are threatening European civilisation? Offe grows visibly irritated. “That’s the battle cry of the populists: all these ‘foreigners’ make ‘us’ feel like ‘foreigners in our own country’”.

The odd thing, he notes, is that “ethno-nationalist and xenophobic passions” are weakest in the very countries (Italy and Greece) that for geographic reasons are being forced to bear the costs of wave after wave of refugees. The pattern throughout Europe, he says, is that Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry are strongest where there are fewest refugees. He gives the point a sharp twist: “It’s the demagogue populists and their supporters who are most urgently in need of being ‘integrated’ into societies that are ever more diverse.”

“France, and its citizens, are no longer safe.”

Brexit and European disintegration

Our short time together is ending, so I press Claus Offe to say a few words about Brexit, and the dangers posed to the EU by potentially ruinous state rivalries.

Offe admits he’s worried about new fractious fissures that are developing, for instance between Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece, “the loser countries of the Euro and debt crisis”, and the rest of the EU. The disagreements over refugee policy between Brussels and the Visegrad (“V4”) countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) are similarly ominous, he agrees. But he reserves his full exasperation for the Brexit drama: the events triggered by the decision of UK voters (actually only 37.5% of them to leave the EU.

The historic vote to break away from the European Union is plunging the UK into political uncertainty.

The wise public intellectual suddenly reveals his upset about the political damage that’s being done to Europe by the Brexit decision. “Let’s imagine we’re living in a house with others”, he begins, “and a resident proposed a vote on whether or not we should continue staying in the house. We’d naturally expect a discussion of alternative housing arrangements before the vote was taken. We’d need to know where we’re moving. Incredibly, that didn’t happen prior to the UK referendum.”

Offe rounds on the “fear-driven, truth-doesn’t-matter propaganda” of the Brexit campaign. His harshest words are reserved for the motives and miscalculations of David Cameron. The UK referendum “was the political equivalent of what’s known in penal law as ‘criminal negligence’” led by a Prime Minister “trying to stem the tide of nationalist populism”, says Offe. “How could he so recklessly force a whole country to play Russian roulette against itself?”

I remind Offe that Cameron’s been punished politically for his foolishness; after all, he was forced to resign, in disgrace. “Yes,” says Offe, invoking Winston Churchill’s biting quip, “but the trouble with committing political suicide is that you live to regret it.” Then follows a remark about suicide: “Suicide requires courage, but in this case the decision to hold a referendum was driven by cowardice.” Cowardice, I ask? “The cowardice of a governing elite that shirked its political responsibilities as representatives of the public good”, he replies. “And the cowardice of voters not held accountable for such a momentous and complex decision that will surely inflict massive economic burdens and long-lasting political disadvantages upon the whole British population”.

David Cameron with Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council in February 2016. European Council President/flickr

The whole saga “stinks on ice”, Offe says. Not only does it raise such practical questions as what will be the fate of the two million European citizens currently working in the UK, or who will pay the pensions of British citizens currently employed at the European Commission, Brexit is compounding public anxieties about the future. Flights of capital from the country have begun. And Brexit exposes the deadly dangers of using a referendum to handle complex and consequential matters. “Parliaments use safety procedures, such as several readings of bills, confidence votes and super-majority requirements,” he says. “In this Brexit business, such procedures were entirely absent at Westminster.”

Now that the UK Supreme Court has ruled (by an 8-3 majority) that Theresa May’s government must win the support of both houses of parliament before triggering Article 50, new battles are bound to happen.

The Scottish National Party will undoubtedly seek substantial amendments to the proposed legislation; the Liberal Democrats will likely vote against Article 50 unless there’s a guarantee of another referendum on the final deal reached between the UK and the EU. How the Lords will react is unclear. Populists are of course wetting themselves with excitement. “Now Parliament must deliver will of the people - we will trigger A50 by end of March. Forward we go!”, tweeted Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

A viable alternative

But in which direction? And with what results? Whatever transpires, we agree that the whole messy Brexit process is spreading anxiety throughout the whole of the EU, so I put my farewell question to Offe.

When measured in terms of media coverage and public commentary, paradoxically, European integration is deepening, I say. Not since World War II has the subject of Europe gripped the hearts and minds of so many millions of people. Yet most things otherwise look rather bleak, as in the 1920s; the menace of European disintegration is getting the upper hand, isn’t it? How long will it be before Europe becomes a burden to the rest of the world, I ask? Can Europe, as Camus had hoped, once again prove it’s capable of finding energy in its contradictions and differences and, under pressure, reinvent itself as a place the whole world respects?

Claus Offe surprises me with his ebullience, or what he calls his “cautious realism”. Europe may be on its knees, he says, but it’s not down and out. “Those who draw analogies between the 1930s and our times are mistaken,” he says. “Yes, our present troubles bear some resemblance to the economic disruption and political disaffection of the 1920s. But there are no Führers waiting in the wings. There’s widespread public commitment to democracy. Even fringe neo-fascist parties like Germany’s NPD (National demokratische Partei Deutschlands] are forced to camouflage their doubts about democracy.”

“And the setbacks of the moment are but the flipside of eclipsed hopes”, he says. “Neo-liberal globalisation has momentarily triumphed over a robust welfare state. It’s fashionable to ignore the economic benefits of integration and to think that tightened national borders are a bulwark of security. But I’m convinced none of this can replace the hope for an integrated Europe that provides for the security and prosperity of its citizens in ways that disjointed nation states can’t any longer do.”

Europe must not be lost. Pete Lambert/flickr

I ask him what he has in mind. “There’s only one viable general alternative”, he replies. “The banks and states have been bailed out. Now it’s time to rescue workers, the unemployed, young people, pensioners and other citizens who’ve been most severely hurt by financial crisis and stagnation. Money’s cheaper than ever, austerity has failed.”

He pauses, for effect. “So imagine the founding of a new Ministry for Social Affairs and Social Security in Brussels that pays each member state 50% of the unemployment insurance and retraining costs they currently bear. Then imagine a multi-billion euro infrastructure investment programme in such fields as communications, transportation and energy, backed by a strengthened European Parliament and a Commission-led government of a federal Europe. Such initiatives would undoubtedly increase public support for European integration. They would encourage citizens to feel that Europe mustn’t be lost, that it’s possible to move forwards, towards a system of transnational social security and representative democracy never before tried anywhere else on our planet.”

Born in Berlin in 1940, Claus Offe has published widely and researched and taught at many institutions throughout the world. He was most recently Professor of Political Sociology at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin (2006 - 2012). Among his best-known recent books are Reflections on America: Tocqueville, Weber and Adorno in the United States (2005), Europe Entrapped (2015) and (with Ulrich Preuss) Citizens in Europe (2016).

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

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