A Comeback of Mitteleuropa

An interview with Marcel Gauchet by Maciej Nowicki

For Germany, eastern neighbors (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) are today a sort of ersatz of the European Union. It might come to be that, in the near future, this Mini-Europe will be absolutely enough for Berlin, says French historian Marcel Gauchet, in a conversation with Maciej Nowicki.

Are we entering an era of German domination in Europe?

Germany does not want to dominate Europe. And even if it did, it would have no idea how to do it. Namely, it has no ideas for the EU and Germans are a very narrow-minded, provincial nation. So long have they been engaged in internal squaring of their accounts that now they are only interested in themselves. Therefore, they have virtually no foreign policy, but only a national policy which boils down to a cautious, meticulous or even obsessive care for their own economic interest. Plus, you have the Merkel doctrine. At the same time they remain blind to the interests of other states. They assume that as long as a policy is beneficial for Germany, it should be pursued. And what if Spain or Italy is drowning? Well, it’s not their fault.

This is the official line in Berlin which Germany keeps repeating endlessly: We don’t want to be a leader. It only brings us trouble.

And they are actually telling the truth. Indeed, Germany has great industrial traditions which have proved helpful again. They are now returning to their older role of industrial superpower which they played until the end of 19th century. As always, they strongly believe in hard work, reliability and are serious to the bone. Actually, the only thing you can accuse them of is the way they performed during the EU enlargement of 2004. European Commissioner for Enlargement, a German national, Günter Verheugen, did exceed his competence…

How?

The German ruling classes perceived EU enlargement as an opportunity to satisfy one of their most crucial strategic aspirations: they wanted to push away the border of Russian influence by a couple of hundred kilometers. And Poland was a perfect buffer. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy that Poland is in the EU. However, behind the enlargement there was a person who did not pay attention to the mechanisms of governing Europe, but who only cared about German interests. As a result, the EU, which had been unsteerable even before, fell into complete chaos. Still, this does not imply that there was any project for German hegemony in the first place.

I don’t believe that the French are really pleased that the EU was enlarged. After all, it has dramatically changed the balance of power in favor of Germany…

That’s true. We are witnessing the rebirth of Mitteleuropa, the dream of all German political and economic theorists prior to 1914. Given positioning of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, just a stone’s throw away, Germany has gained an industrial base which has enabled it to significantly lower production costs. For them Mitteleuropa constitutes a substitute of EU. And maybe in the near future this “Mini-Europe” will be perfectly sufficient for Berlin. Why would they need the South? Or Greece, which they need to pay for? Portugal, Spain or even Italy? The world’s wealthy will still keep buying Mercedes anyway. But, and I want to emphasize this yet again, we can’t speak of an initial domination project. Simply, there was an opportunity which Germans could not miss. The French reacted in a very silly way, with Chirac deciding that the dispute over Iraq was more significant than the one over long-term interests and ordering retreat from the region.

In 1989, the French held all the trump cards. Even during Chirac’s presidency France still remained the main foreign investor in Poland. Germany was treated with mistrust.

Today, France is paying for these mistakes.

Is France able to counterbalance Germany?

No. We’ve found ourselves in a trap. The only country which from the economic viewpoint can afford leaving the Euro area is Germany. All other states, including France, have no sensible alternatives. We cannot leave the Euro area because this would cost too much. At the same time we cannot stay in it as Germany has taken over the French, the Spanish and the Italian markets in Europe. I fear that what we are going to see, is a longterm weakening of France. And this tendency is hardly reversible.

François Hollande is trying to reverse this trend. What will he be able to gain?

Personally I really like him. He is an honest, cautious and modest person, and a good listener. In a word: a complete opposite of Sarkozy. Yet, he is not a charismatic leader. He is a 100% product of French political culture.

The French economy is a schizophrenic delusion. It is simultaneously too modern and too obsolete. French entrepreneurs are more globalized than any other group of Europeans: they only gaze at BRICS, emerging superpowers, as if their country didn’t exist anymore. They pay absolutely no attention to current developments in France. Time and again, French companies relocate to Shanghai. And this is the main difference between France and Germany. Germans do their utmost to keep a strong base in their own territory because later on, it will serve as a springboard for expansion.

And we don’t have this. Neither do we have dynamic SMEs. Instead, we inherited hardly steerable monsters, dating back to the era of Louis XIV. Plus, the state is beyond reform unless a domestic war breaks out. It’s common knowledge that we have the top public sector spending among European states. But there is also a second figure that makes your hair stand on end: 60% of the income of citizens come from the state’s redistribution measures! This is unbelievable. Hollande, as a Socialist, is the only person who could do something about it. But he is not up to it. France is a welfare state doomed to slow but inevitable impoverishment.

Today even Germany feels a sense of failure. They complain about having to pay for others and others still bear a grudge against them and accuse them either of domination ambitions (when Germans are taking action), or of indifference (when they refrain from action). Is the present EU a union of losers?

Yes, in a way. After all, Europe is the biggest loser of globalization. There is no other continent which in the last year has been in so much decline as Europe. But this is not the whole picture of the EU. From the internal perspective, things look different: small states gained importance. And this is easy to explain. For centuries, Europe was dominated by wars; even in the best periods the balance was wobbly. Small states put all their energy into searching for alliances and in this way protected themselves against predators.

Establishing the EU brought permanent peace to Europe. Now, everyone is protected. This is a huge victory for small states. Instead of searching for protectors, they can now pursue opportunist economic strategies. This allows them to adapt much better to globalization.

Another group of winners are post‑communist and post-authoritarian countries. Irrespective of the present dramatic developments in Greece you need to bear in mind, what these countries were before EU accession. Greeks who complain about Europe now, should receive a bill with all the funding provided for their country. Why don’t they pay the cash back in that case…

Whereas for the big states the EU has meant only losses.

Because, like the French, they can’t stop pondering over their lost superpower positions?

Because the old foreign policy, the superpower policy, is now a thing of the past. This is the reason why big states such as Germany, France or even Italy feel superfluous. This is one of the reasons why elites in these countries hold the EU in utter contempt. It doesn’t provide them with an opportunity to satisfy their ambitions. As a result, big states are trying to develop surrogate strategies in order to compensate for their lost power. The English pretend they are still big because of their close relations with their American cousins. The Germans focus on industrial power. And the French do not really know what to do. Luckily, they still have their old assets: nuclear weapons, a permanent membership in the Security Council and influence in the Third World, which altogether provides them with 60 mandates in the UN. And using them will always help you gain something…

Poland and Czech Republic have adopted two completely different tactics toward the EU. While the Czechs decided it’s better to keep away, the Poles have been much more involved. This however gives them a permanent sense of disappointment. Maybe Poland should be more opportunistic?

The difference between Poland and Czech Republic boils down to a difference between a big and a small state. The Czechs concluded that their best interest was to trade with Germany. They opted for opportunism. But political traditions are deeply rooted in the past. Therefore, the Poles are not in a position to suddenly convince themselves, “we want to be like the Czechs and crave less”. This would only aggravate their frustration.

I know that for example, in the Polish perspective, Eastern Partnership is a failure. You didn’t manage to drag Ukraine into Europe etc. But look at a competitive idea: the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership put forward by Sarkozy. This project misfired as well. Maybe this could serve as a sort of consolation for the Poles.

Is there anyone else there believing in Europe? Apart from the Poles?

From the viewpoint of France, EU has completely lost its meaning. Except for some old idiots out of touch with reality, I don’t know even a single intellectual or politician who still believes in the EU. Average people also hate it. In the 2005 constitutional referendum, 55% of the French voted against Europe. Today this rate would amount to 70%, optimistically speaking.

Is it because we have been let down by the promise that the Euro would bring prosperity to every one?

Yes, because of this as well. But there is one more thing: no counter proposals. Today there is no convincing conception for Europe. No wonder then, that we are all heading into our national comfort zones.

But this is bizarre. After 1945, even though Europeans permanently needed US assistance to protect them from Moscow, they managed to maintain the ability to think independently. And then, suddenly, in the 90’s, when there was no more Soviet threat on the horizon, we witnessed an intellectual abdication. The American model became the ultimate authority and the Brussels machinery killed any remaining European ideas. The result can be seen today: today’s Europe is amoral; spiritually and intellectually it is no-man’s land. We’ve become the pensioners of history. And there is no salvation in America; they have their own problems now.

But there is one positive development. The demise of Sarkozy and Berlusconi, as well as the growing reluctance of the Russian middle class to accept Putin. Hopefully, this may bring an end to politics based on medial omnipresence, PR gimmicks and unfulfilled promises.

Indeed, this is a major change. We’ve seen an end of historical cycle which was initiated by Clinton, Schröder and Blair. No other European leader had as much medial explosive power as Sarkozy and Berlusconi. And still, they did not manage to accomplish anything. After all France and Italy are now up against the wall. This is food for thought.

Sarkozy assumed that what counted was the number of proposals; not their implementation. This model of politics consisted of flattery and contempt. The flattery part was when Sarkozy and Berlusconi told people everything they wanted to hear. And contempt could be seen when they treated people like idiots. In other words, they followed the instruction of the French writer Frederic Beigbeder: “Do not show the people that you consider them idiots but always remember that they are.” Luckily, sometimes people do notice that they are being taken for idiots.

Maciej Nowicki

Maciej Nowicki is Deputy Editor In Chief of Aspen Review.

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Illiberal backsliding is getting stronger in Visegrad countries recently. Central Europe suffers from a complex of inferiority, they say. Is it a legitimate feeling? Discover the heart of Europe and its pounding chambers on the periphery.

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