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Europe's Progressives
Miss Europe, Kent Monkman, 2016

Europe's Progressives

Konrad Jarausch's Embattled Europe confirms EU intellectual fatigue.

Dalibor Roháč
Embattled Europe: A Progressive Alternative
by Konrad H. Jarausch (Princeton University Press, 344 pp., $29)

Will Olaf Scholz “sort it,” as the campaign slogan of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) has promised ahead of September’s parliamentary election? Despite the campaign hype, in reality, few observers expect the emerging center-left coalition to give a dramatic new vigor to Europe’s integration project, and for good reasons.

One often-overlooked factor is the intellectual fatigue of Germany’s—and indeed of Europe’s—progressive circles. The most recent tome by the acclaimed American-German historian Konrad Jarausch, Embattled Europe: A Progressive Alternative, is a case in point.

Gone is the energy of the 1941 Ventotene Manifesto, in which Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi urged Europeans to “discard old burdens” and to “be ready for the new world that is coming, that will be so different from what we have imagined.”

Jarausch’s effort to “counter the prevailing pessimistic narrative of European obsolescence with a rousing yet realistic defense of the continent,” as the cover of his most recent book promises, turns out to be a pale shadow of the rousing tracts of yore, which saw European integration as the future. Instead of a “jump from the Nation to Humanity,” as the maverick philosopher Alexandre Kojève—who worked with Monnet and Schuman—put it, Jarausch offers Europeans at best a comfortable stasis and a dubious moral high ground.

True, the optimistic and forward-looking visions for Europe were dealt a number of heavy blows over the past decade. From the Continent’s chronic absence of economic dynamism and the near death experience of the common currency, to the chaos of the refugee crisis and Brexit, the European project is not commanding nearly as much excitement and enthusiasm as it once did.

Informed by Jarausch’s illustrious career as an expert on the Continent’s legacies of totalitarianism, the book is generally fair in its treatment of potentially controversial questions such as post-communist transition or “austerity.” But its breezy, quasi-journalistic discussion of the European Union’s (EU) past and present can be boiled down to a reminder to Europeans of how good they’ve got it. The “American dream” may offer “higher income, bigger houses, grander SUVs—but these are purchased by job insecurity, social inequality, racist violence, and a rampant pandemic.”

Setting aside whether the EU’s track record navigating COVID-19 has been a stellar success compared to the United States (at the time of writing, more new cases per 100 thousand people are being recorded in Belgium, Austria, Ireland, and in most of the post-communist members than in the United States), one is struck by the vagueness of Jarausch’s narrative. The book seeks to catalogue European successes whether or not they are due to wise national policies, to the EU, or just historical accidents, with the underlying message that “positive experiences in competitiveness, welfare reform, or environmental protection also suggest that many Europeans have already begun to realize the gains of their cooperation. These successful examples offer hope for a renewal of progressive politics in general.”

At no point does the book grapple with the limits of the European “social model” or of the EU; its governance; the mismatch between its ambitions and capabilities; or indeed its geopolitical future in the light of the rise of authoritarian revisionist regimes and the reconfiguration of the transatlantic partnership.

Many of the examples cited are only tangentially related to the European project. The stellar success of, say, the Nordic countries in improving their competitiveness came in response to the previous overextension of their welfare states followed by a crisis in the early 1990s. Similarly, although economic reforms in Poland and other post-communist countries were driven by their simultaneous opening up to foreign investment, the EU as such played only a marginal role. As Slovakia’s former Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda told me in a recent conversation, “meeting the conditions for accession and the gradual integration with the EU had zero practical impact on reforms.”

Somehow, similar competitiveness-enhancing reforms have rarely succeeded on the Eurozone’s Southern periphery—notwithstanding the EU’s succession of largely failed programs aimed at boosting growth and innovation, such as the Lisbon Agenda and Europe 2020. Worse yet, such earlier efforts have now been replaced with nothing. “It is with awe and horror that I’ve realized that the word ‘reform’ has disappeared from the EU’s vocabulary,” Dzurinda said. “In my time, you’d hear [Dutch PM] Balkenende or [Spanish PM] Aznar talking about them, today we seem to be so content with where we are.”

Jarausch’s book echoes this sentiment and assures us that all is well, citing the export successes of German manufactures (a claim that he undermines in his discussion of the euro, which arguably helped German exporters at the expense of “catch-up efforts in Eastern European and Mediterranean countries”). He pays no attention to the disturbing fact that Europe is increasingly absent from lists of the world’s unicorns: private companies worth $1 billion or more. In 2021, the EU is home to merely forty unicorns, valued jointly at $78 billion. For comparison, the joint valuation of the nineteen unicorns hailing just from South Korea, Singapore, and from Indonesia is $76 billion. And whereas six unicorns grew in Indonesia, zero did in Italy, the EU’s third largest economy.

“As an innovative superpower, America may be a great place for capitalist winners, but a chastened and peaceful Europe takes better care of those in need,” Jarausch declares, without considering that the two factoids might be connected. Instead of being in a position to lecture the United States about the merits of expansive social safety nets, Europeans should perhaps be grateful for the existence of a large dynamic economy on the other side of the Atlantic, whose innovative churn helps make European welfare states sustainable.

The superficial nature of Jarausch’s treatment of economic subjects goes hand in hand with occasional factual mistakes. In the context of Czech post-communist reforms, he contrasts the “neoliberal agenda” of Václav Klaus, allegedly “centered on reduced taxes, completing the privatization of banks, utilities and railways, trimming payments for welfare and subsidies for university education,” with Klaus’ Social Democratic successor, Miloš Zeman’s, insistence on “the preservation of the welfare state.” Never mind that Klaus opposed bank privatization, facilitating the emergence under his government of the so-called “bank socialism” through which freshly privatized companies ended up under the control of state-owned banks. This anomaly led to a banking crisis and eventually to a privatization of Czech banks, as well as of a number of utilities, under the watch of Miloš Zeman.

Elsewhere, Jarausch juxtaposes “fiscal conservatives” who “denounced the creation of a common currency of countries with the different economic performance and without a shared government as an impossibility,” with progressive voices such as Joseph Stiglitz, who supposedly “had more sympathy for the integrative goals of a shared currency but berated the austerity policies of the European Central Bank as counterproductive for growth and prosperity.” The reality, however, is that a plethora of left-leaning economists, most prominently Paul Krugman, opposed the introduction of the common European currency as strongly as did Martin Feldstein or Milton Friedman. Stiglitz himself has little patience for the platitudes surrounding the euro’s creation, “uttered by politicians unschooled in economics who create their own reality.” The bloc’s debt crisis gave rise to a wave of Euroskepticism on the left, epitomized by figures such as Costas Lapavitsas, whom Jarausch never acknowledges—much less engages with.

Jarausch recognizes that countries that did undertake structural reforms in response to the financial crisis (Ireland, Latvia) were the first ones to turn things around, and that it required “drastic measures” to get Portugal and Greece to grow again. Yet, he never grapples with the implications of this observation. Even the “explanation” that Jarausch offers for the crisis is just a trope, rather than an analytical effort. “Unrestrained speculation in the United States, dramatized in the 2015 film The Big Short,” is the culprit the book earnestly identifies. Likewise, in Europe, “aided by Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal deregulation, European banks had also thrown themselves into financial speculation, investing heavily in American subprime mortgages.” Leaving aside the fact that Thatcher’s deregulation of the city of London is largely a myth, placing the blame at the doorsteps of putative free-market fundamentalists and speculators in countries outside of Europe has very little explanatory power in accounting for the depth, and the length, of the recession in specific European countries.

Apart from descriptive accounts of the refugee crisis as well as of the run-up to the Brexit referendum, Jarausch offers no sustained effort at understanding either. “The Leave campaign was ultimately more effective,” he claims, “because it was more mendacious in making unsubstantiated claims,” before he moves on to a lengthy though largely fact-free discussion of the rise of “bregretters", who were supposedly cheated by the unscrupulous Euroskeptics.

The largest blind spot in Embattled Europe is a geopolitical one, notwithstanding its acknowledgment that Europeans need to do more to take care of their neighborhood. One of Europeans’ virtues, we are told, is that “they prefer to resolve problems by negotiation whenever possible. With the exception of the wars of Yugoslav succession, this civilian approach has pacified Europe and helped reduce tensions in other crisis regions, even if it had occasionally to be supplemented by force.” Similarly to the book’s treatment of economic issues, no exploration is made of the possibility that Europe’s pacifism might be an artifact of the Pax Americana and of America’s security guarantees. Take those away, and Europe’s noble aversion to war becomes a fatal vulnerability.

The developments of the past decade should have given progressive defenders of the European project plenty to think about. Some of these defenders, such as Hans Kundnani, have risen to the occasion by taking seriously the implications of the EU’s introspective turn over the past decade; but few of them have articulated a compelling forward-looking agenda informed by the Continent’s changing economic, social, and political realities. Alas, Jarausch’s most recent book misses that mark too, offering instead a lukewarm chicken soup that is unlikely to make pro-European progressives feel much better.

Dalibor Roháč is a contributing editor at American Purpose and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @DaliborRohac

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