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INTERVIEW: Professor Jan Zielonka — ‘Europe once had sex appeal’

Submitted by on 26 Mar 2015 – 16:23

Jan Zielonka is Professor of European Politics at the University of Oxford and Ralf Dahrendorf Fellow at St Antony’s College.  He is the author of Is the EU Doomed? (Polity Press, 2014) and Europe as Empire: The Nature of the Enlarged European Union (Oxford, 2006). In this interview with Olivia Arigho Stiles he discusses the future of austerity in Greece, immigration and the urgent need to reinvigorate European democracy.

Photo: Stephan Röhl, Flickr

Jan Zielonka
Photo: Stephan Röhl, Flickr

With the recent victory of Syriza in the Greek elections, are we seeing a new challenge to Europe’s ‘financialised neoliberalism’?

I see resistance to this [neoliberal] consensus growing but I don’t think Syriza and Greece by itself can deliver. This is because a lot of people look with fear to what is going on with Syriza. Some of those are in Greece. Let’s not forget that New Democracy helped certain groups of people to walk through the crisis with no tremendously painful losses or judicial scrutiny over what they have done in previous years. There are those who are also afraid, not just entrepreneurs but the old political establishment and the clergy. They will certainly put up enormous resistance to what has happened there. Politicians from the old establishment and from the creditor countries don’t want to hear about a change, of course. They want to give Greece an aspirin but not treat the serious illness. Juncker has already said forgiving debts is not on his radar.  Even Bloomberg acknowledges a partial debt write-off is the most reasonable solution even though ideologically they have nothing to do with Syriza as you know.

With the spectre of Brexit and Grexit, does the EU have a future as an integrated union?

The Eurozone is much more prepared for Grexit than they have before. They are able to handle this. But from a symbolic point of view, it would mean a lot; divorce is probably better than staying together in a bad marriage but it is never a good symbol for the institution of marriage itself. This will be a precedent and other countries will ask, are we next? Not to leave. but to be kicked out basically.

 And Brexit?

 I think this is a different question. Greece was traditionally very pro-European. Britain was never very pro-European. It’s a different starting point. It’s true that Nigel Farage and Syriza are both sceptical about the current EU but Farage would rather leave immediately while Syriza wants to renegotiate the terms. So there is a difference here. And of course Britain is not in the euro so if there is suffering it is self-imposed. But as you can see the political elite is very skilful to shift responsibility on to migrants. It’s a beautiful case, immigration from within the EU because I’m old enough to remember when those eastern European countries joined the EU, Britain didn’t have to take those migrants, it could impose seven years transition period, it didn’t have to take them. They profited economically no doubt about that but at the same time they have not taken care of the normal provisions that should be [in place] if migrants arrive– schools, medical care and housing, and provisions for local people who cannot compete with low wage migrants.  And of course this produced resentment.


 You have advanced the idea of a ‘neo-medieval’, imperial Europe in contradistinction to a Westphalian state. Who ultimately, then, is the ultimate driving force behind this imperial Europe – Merkel?

 First of all the medieval aspect means there are multiplications of actors. There was this idea that nation states will eventually merge into a European state but this is obviously not what we’ve seen.We see that there are emerging some semi-imperial states like Germany and some semi-failed states like Greece or Cyprus. We see that most growth is generated not by states, but by cities, mega cities. And we didn’t know a few months ago whether Britain would stay in one piece. We don’t know if Spain will stay together.

There are other actors emerging – private companies, NGOs and think tanks. If you are a young person today do you want to work for the government or for an NGO?

My colleague [the political theorist] Benjamin Barber recently said ‘States are like those old trees in the forest – they will eventually die, but they are still taking the light and they coexist with younger trees and bushes’.There is enormous change today but our discourse still is very much ‘nation state versus Europe’ because this is where the political arena lies. This is where the media provides entertainment around electoral processes but it doesn’t work this way, in Europe particularly.

 What has prompted these changes?

We have had enormous external shocks over thirty years.  First, the geopolitical collapse of the Soviet Union and everything which has happened next, the reunification of Germany, wars in the former Yugoslav and Soviet federations. Then we had an enormous economic shock when the single market as well as the euro were introduced and as a consequence economic borders evaporated. And finally we had the internet revolution which took away all barriers to communication. So we are grappling with these changes and it is very clear that the EU has not proven the most skilful actor in dealing with these changes.

 To pick up the point about NGOs – they have proliferated in the past thirty years and share a relationship with the rise of neoliberalism and changes taking place in higher education and shifts towards its marketisation in particular. Have privately funded NGOs eclipsed universities as laboratories of critical thinking?

NGOs monitor governments these days probably better than parliaments. This changes the nature of democracy, in a sense; to paraphrase John Keane; a monitory democracy has replaced a system of parliamentary representation. NGOs, the media and social media in particular, play a crucial role in this new system. Parties are fading away. Who is joining political parties today? I recently read that the average age of British Conservative party is 74. It tells you something about where the future is.

Photo: Martin Fisch

Photo: Martin Fisch


To return to the EU – Do the TTIP negotiations indicate that the EU is now little more than an arena for elites to advance their financial interests?

There is no doubt that corporations have easier access to the EU than civil society, but we will see. We had an example with ACTA before; young people mobilised themselves overnight through social networks and organised demonstrations all over Europe against ACTA which the EU had tried to push at the insistence of some corporations. So we will see how it will work with TTIP. But some details of this agreement have been published only recently, before they were totally secret so it is too early for me to make a judgement. But it is clear that unless some conditions will be met the agreement will not be easily accepted by various political and societal groups.

 You have argued as part of the neo-medieval thesis that Europe’s borders are ‘soft and fuzzy’ rather than rigidly delineated. Yet over 400 migrants have died in January of 2015 alone after attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach the shores of Europe. Surely ‘Fortress Europe’ and its reality of harshly closed borders belie this interpretation?

Those borders are soft in the field of communication and finance in particular. But in terms of the movement of labour or migration, Europe of course makes them hard but with very little result. You can talk a lot about check controls at airports and harbours but 80% of immigrants came on a valid visa. It’s very difficult for governments to control that because they would like millionaires in to spend lot of money and to keep poor people out, or to take only skilled workers and not their families, but it doesn’t work this way. And as long as we are not producing more babies we are dependent on migrants anyway to keep our economies going. Our immigration discourse is deeply hypocritical. I do not suggest an “anything goes policy” in the field of migration, that governments shouldn’t try to have some oversight and control and negotiate with their electorate the notions of multicultural society and the scale of immigration. But where it has been done, it has been done in the most crude, counterproductive and primitive ways.

"Old trees in the forest?" Photo: subflux, Flickr

“Old trees in the forest?”
Photo: subflux, Flickr


How do you square the idea of a liberal and tolerant Europe with its apparent resentment of Islamic and migrant populations?

Europe is very diversified. We have very different people with diverse political views; some are more open, some are xenophobic. The EU used to play a positive role for many years, but no longer. Today the EU is seen as a symbol of austerity, external impositions and sanctions. Migrants are being repelled rather than invited.

 Does the EU have a future?

These days the EU is hampering integration rather than helping it to grow.  That is a big problem because there are mounting challenges that can only be resolved collectively. Moreover, populist forces campaigning against the EU are gaining strength. Europe needs to reinvent itself. In my last book about the EU [Is the EU Doomed? (Polity Press, 2014)] I proposed a more decentralised Europe of networks. I argue that functional transnational networks will work better than a European super state.  Besides, Europe is unlikely to construct such a single continental federation because nation states will not commit suicide by delegating all their powers to Brussels.

What are the three most pressing issues facing Europe today?

Austerity, Ukraine and immigration. These are the issues which were the most pronounced in the European elections and I’m afraid the EU is not in a position to efficiently tackle any of them.  I’m the last one who would believe that nation states can take power back from Brussels and sort out these issues. You heard me before saying:  nation states are like those old trees in the forest. So we must work together in this very interdependent continent but we have to find new ways of doing that. Greece gives us a chance to reverse the course and let’s hope that Europe will come back to the years of glory. Don’t forget that Europe once had sex appeal. Many wanted to join us, admired us and wanted to imitate us but in a few short years we have wasted our enormous credentials. I hope we can renew them.

 What sustains Europe as an idea? What is binding European countries together in the 21st Century?

 First, the legacy of war in Europe still binds us, maybe the young population less than the old one. Second, economics. We are more economically interdependent, including Britain, than with any other part of the world.  Three, culture. You realise how much we are culturally bound together if you go to Asia Pacific for example. And international competition – unless we stick together any dictator like Putin will try to call our bluff in foreign policy, so we have enormous reason to stay together. But we have to find ways to make staying together bearable, if not enjoyable.  The Greek election results show that the people have had enough and it will be like that in many other countries unless we change the course.


 Professor Jan Zielonka was speaking to Olivia Arigho Stiles.