Since 2015, there has been a chorus of doomsaying about the European Union. Commentators’ odds on its survival lengthened as the Eurozone crisis foretold the prospect of sovereign-debt defaults, the narrow avoidance of ‘Grexit’ was managed at an enormous cost to Greek citizens, the refugee crisis hit European shores with its full and tragic force and the uk voted to quit. Out of this quartet of crises came a swathe of ‘end of eu’ writing, from historian John Gillingham’s The eu : An Obituary to Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, lamenting the continent’s cultural collapse. Even the most convinced Europeans had their doubts. Guy Verhofstadt, one of Europe’s most ardent federalists and long-serving leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament, published De ziekte van Europa—‘Europe’s Sickness’—though by the time the English version was published he had opted for the more optimistic Europe’s Last Chance. Amidst all this was much talk about who would follow Britain out of the eu’s door.
Though products of the same historical moment, both Jan Zielonka’s Counter-Revolution and Ivan Krastev’s After Europe run against this tide of commentary. Krastev’s title is a nod to the catastrophist Zeitgeist, but neither author gives much credit to Bannonite fantasies of the collapse of the eu. Instead, both argue that a certain phase of European integration has come to an end—what we might call its liberal-constitutionalist era—rather than the eu as such. In contrast to much of the technocratic literature on this subject, both books are short, well-written and packed with ideas. Contrary to those who imagine ‘Europe’ as something extraneous—‘out there’, in ‘Brussels’—both understand the eu as primarily an expression of the sorts of politics that predominate within the member states themselves. As these national political landscapes begin to buckle beneath the strains of economic and social crisis, what will be the effects on their Union?
It is no coincidence that two Eastern Europeans seek answers to this question. As Krastev points out, the citizens of their countries know what regime disintegration is like, whereas Western Europeans only have it from text books. Krastev was born in Lukovit, in northern Bulgaria, in 1965 and Zielonka, born ten years earlier, was originally from a Silesian town in south-western Poland. Krastev was a final-year philosophy student in Sofia in 1989. Zielonka had left Poland in the early 1980s and campaigned for Solidarity abroad; he was in Holland when the Iron Curtain came down. Krastev now holds a permanent fellowship at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. His list of visiting positions in think-tanks and universities—from Berlin to New York—is improbably long. Zielonka has been at St Antony’s College, Oxford, for well over a decade, after teaching in Leiden and Florence. Yet though these trajectories inform their outlooks, neither suggests that the changes underway in Europe have any special origin in the East. Zielonka explains that he conceived Counter-Revolution in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the eu and Renzi’s defeat at the hands of Grillo. Even as he wrote, in 2017, establishment politicians—Rutte in the Netherlands, Macron in France, May in Britain—were respectively castigating migrants, bashing traditional parties and embracing Brexit.
Highly readable, Zielonka’s book takes the form of a letter to his old teacher, Ralf Dahrendorf, who in 1989 had drafted an epistolary response to the tumult in the Comecon countries modelled on Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Where Dahrendorf saw a liberal revolution underway, Zielonka now tries to understand the ‘counter-revolution’ that has arisen against it. Refreshingly, his book departs from much of the literature on the ‘populist explosion’, which seeks to unpick the claims of the populists without criticizing the liberal order itself. Instead, he offers a systematic attempt to trace the crisis of liberalism through the failures and weaknesses of the post-1989 decades. In his view, the liberal revolution overreached itself, taking neoliberal and anti-majoritarian forms. No longer ‘a map to guide individuals, governments and societies’, liberalism became ‘a comprehensive ideology of power’, removed from the realm of electoral contestability as another political outlook, alongside conservatism and socialism. Instead, it came to function as a background mode of governance, promoting markets above politics, favouring the regional integration of economies and the construction of transnational modes of rule, and emphasizing an extra-democratic constitutionalism—in particular the delegation of powers to independent non-majoritarian institutions—as a route to resolving societal conflicts (in the rulers’ favour). Though liberal parties continue to participate in elections, liberalism has been embraced by all the mainstream parties, left, right and centre, as the establishment’s ideology of power.
The forces that Zielonka labels ‘counter-revolutionary’ are characterized by their opposition to at least some aspects of this ideology of power. Examples include the critique of independent institutions, such as the Constitutional Courts in Poland—or, of course, the European Central Bank. The ‘counter-revolutionaries’, in Poland and elsewhere, argue that even though liberalism embraces pluralism, its entrenchment as a governing ideology has anti-pluralist consequences. Another manifestation is the resistance to the increasing convergence between parties on the left and the right, their willingness to govern together in cartel-like ‘grand coalitions’—a resistance now emerging within the mainstream parties themselves, for instance the #NoGroKo movement in the German spd. Yet there is no simple way back. ‘European models of democracy, capitalism and integration are not in sync with new complex networks of cities, bankers, terrorists and migrants’, Zielonka writes. The eu as a liberal construct needs to be re-invented, which demands a reinvention of liberalism itself—‘stopping, if not reversing’ neoliberal politics. ‘I strongly believe that the current European predicament could well turn into another wonderful renaissance’, he concludes. But this will require ‘serious reflection on what went wrong’ if Europe is to avoid what Dahrendorf once envisaged, a Vale of Tears.