Interview: Geert Mak — Reconquering Europe
9 January 2012
What’s in store for project Europe this year? A community under the supervision of a strong European Commission or a decentralised intergovernmental system, advocated by the Germans? Dutch historian Geert Mak has painted a bleak picture for the future of the European Union.
He was in no way looking forward to it. Geert Mak has been writing a book on America, which is why Europe had been receiving much less of his attention. But when the German weekly Die Zeit wondered aloud why European intellectuals have been keeping so quiet, he came back with an essay – Tišma's Dog [De hond van Tišma]. What if Europe falls?
Tišma's Dog paints a bleak picture. Together with historian Norman Davies, an expert on European history, Mak concludes that the December EU summit effectively destroyed any hope that might have remained. “I'm afraid all is lost.”
It’s a case of 'too little, too late'. Insufficient money for the emergency funds, not enough cases by which a country can be sanctioned, too little vision and ultimately inadequate European leadership. "Merkel's Germany", Mak writes, "is missing a historical opportunity to become the true leader of Europe. Fearing the wrong spectre, that of inflation, Germany is pushing Europe into recession". "A big mistake", says Mak. "You're better off visiting the inflation station [i.e. printing more euros] . And squeezing the South till there is nothing left of it will not work."
You write that we need to wrest Europe back from the financial markets. Any suggestions how? In 1989, the liberal West conquered Communism. And let casino capitalism escalate outrageously.
"If you do business, you take risks. You might be rewarded, but it might just as easily blow up in your face. Every street trader knows that. But the forces of supply and demand have been upset by the banks, that have almost started an anti-democratic revolution. They have claimed all power for themselves. Everyone will emerge from this crisis severely damaged, except for those who caused it. The banks run absolutely no risk, while the public sector pays the price.
Recently I attended a meeting where a group of European specialists from the financial sector were lectured by a prominent Chinese economist and a central banker from Africa. An interesting historical turning point. The African said, ‘Your banks are filled with very competent people, but they have made every single mistake in the book. That can only be explained if other factors have influenced their decisions. In Africa we call those other factors corruption.’ The entire room went quiet. He was talking about the bonuses and he was completely right."
Europe was an attempt at creating a democracy that transcends the national borders. Can't democracy handle an unfettered global market?
“That is what makes me so sad. With all its shortcomings, with all its scratches and dents, the European Union is still a fantastic experiment in this area. For this reason we must defend it tooth and nail. The EU should at least be a model that preserves democratic values in this turbulent 21st century. If that is lost, then others will fill the vacuum. The Americans, the Chinese, the Brazilians, the Russians."
The EU is a typical product of the belief that society is malleable. Will the populists turn out to have been right? Is it not working?
"No. They have one point: a fog of discontent is hanging over Europe. In the Netherlands that feeling is very strong. Populists voice the discontent. I understand the criticism towards Europe. But turning in on ourselves is just magical thinking. Of course, retreating into national myths is incredibly tempting. Sometimes in bed at night I play with the idea of joining the right wing, but only for fifteen minutes. Wouldn’t that be so nice!"
That sense of unease is also present in your book. You are a European in heart and soul, and you observe with the eye of a historian. But you do not come up with a solution. You are ultimately forced to admit that it doesn't work.
"No matter how sad, I was not surprised. In the final chapter of my book In Europe I already wrote that, with 27 captains on deck, this is a very off keel ship to be sailing. I predicted that this would cause great problems, once a storm hits. And that storm has now arrived.
Your book ends on a bleak note. What is your hope for 2012?
“The coming years are all about what will become of Europe. Will a communal system under the supervision of a strong European Commission remain in place, or will it turn into a decentralised intergovernmental system, advocated by the Germans? The Netherlands can play an intermediary role in this. We are not as dogmatic as the Germans. Let's play that role to its full potential, purely out of self-interest. Because we are and will remain an internationally oriented country.”
Translated from the Dutch by Sarina Ruiter-Bouwhuis