I’ve been in love with history, politics, thought and argument since I was maybe 14. I remember very clearly telling a friend at the time that I wanted to “be paid to say my opinion”… Perhaps not the easiest career path and not one I persistently pursued!
Blogs don’t provide money, usually, but they are an absolute liberation for the aspiring writer: costs are zero, middlemen are eliminated, and you can reach every person on the planet who has Internet. How could I not blog? I started my first blog in 2004 and I don’t think I’ve changed the mix of more analytical pieces with humor, including on Euro-nonsense.
I have always been interested in Europe as I was born and raised here (specifically in France and the UK). I have been interested in the EU insofar as it seemed to represent Europeans reclaiming their power in the world and historical agency. It usually fails in this respect and hence I used to find the United States of America – its historical role, politics and foreign policy organizations – much more interesting. I now think all areas of the world are worthy of study. The US is probably over-written about and, being based in Brussels and involved in EU journalism, I can genuinely add value writing about European affairs. If I wrote about the US I would be just another opinion. I also think Europe needs more pan-European writers: it is a very real entity but it has no public space.
Do you see yourself, first and foremost, as a blogger, journalist, or pundit? What are your best and worst experiences in these roles?
I do not see these as mutually exclusive. They all feed into each other as I often draw on my journalistic work for my blog and the people I meet through blogging often end up being professionally useful. I am not a pundit because I don’t have the fame.
My best experience, and it is ongoing, was beginning formal journalistic work in Brussels a mere three months ago. It’s the first job I really enjoy and find stimulation in, and one that doesn’t feel “false”. It’s also one in which I’ve learned a really incredible amount about how media really work, the complicity between politicians and journalists, the endless plethora of lobbies, pols, NGOs, etc trying to influence the news with their inane press releases, as well as the intricacies of various EU policy areas in practice.
The worst I don’t know. Well, as every blogger knows, blogging can be a lonely, unglamorous and perfectly un-remunerated activity. And still we do it. I don’t think we can do otherwise!
In the long run, I hope to become a completely independent blogger-journalist. In truth, objective text does not exist and to the extent that blogs recognize their subjectivity they are more honest than “normal journalism”. The main difference is in tone, a different idea of balance, and adapting to the publication’s style. In being part of a large organization – which has its culture, clients and priorities – you are obviously also far less free.
I am very attached to my freedom.
Who are the best Europe commentators? Who are the worst?
You know my Google Reader is chock full of European blogs and RSS feeds, and I have some difficulty answering that question…
Actually, the worst is undoubtedly one of the neo-Maurrassian race-baiting French pundits. I will pick Éric Zemmour as he is by far the most famous and influential of them and because as a Jew himself he should really know better than to constantly (and smugly!) demonize black and/or Muslim Frenchmen.
As to the best it is very difficult to say… J. Clive-Matthews, aka NoseMonkey, might have been the best EU blogger but he no longer writes much. Fistful of Euros was easily the best pan-European blog, but it was collaborative and the project has declined in output and coherence. There are lots of very good bloggers whom I usually disagree with but who both have large audiences and are worth reading whether Euroskeptic Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, Libération journalist Jean Quatremer or the Leninist Richard “Didn’t Get the Memo” Seymour. I wouldn’t settle on one person however and there is no really good pan-European blogger. It’s a hole I kind of aspire to fill…
You lived for substantial periods of time in France, the UK, and the US. What are their respective charms and blemishes? If you had to choose, where would you prefer to reside permanently?
The UK tends to be more down-to-earth and unpretentious than the other two. Americans, particularly those of the Midwest and my Dad in particular, have a wonderful “can-do” spirit and optimism. The French, if you can get a secure job, I think have succeeded most in reconciling the constraints of modern civilization with living a “good, flourishing life.”
Oh dear… I often go on rants about the absurdities and prejudices of this or that country. I don’t spare anyone and I could go on forever if I start… So I won’t!
If you could recommend three books about European politics and/or history, what would they be?
First, I urge everyone to read In Defense of Decadent Europe [AK: Click to buy] by the great French intellectual Raymond Aron, ideally in the original French though an abridged English version is available. Written in 1977, there is no better analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of “Western Europe” and the European Economic Community (precursor to the EU), its democracies and economies, their superiority to the Communist bloc, the unremarkable nature of the Communist countries, the course the Soviet Empire’s collapse would take, the mirage of Socialism (it appeared the Communists might win elections in Italy and a Socialist-Communist coalition nearly did in France)… The book is so lucid and right – it has nothing to do with Neoconservative simplifications and idiocies – that it convinced me a contemporary observer really can understand the world he inhabits. You don’t need to wait for time to give you “perspective” or the opening of the government archives. It is a better analysis of Europe in the Cold War than probably the majority of books that have appeared on the subject since.
Some of this might seem dated – environmentalism, neoliberalism and the War on Terror had yet to appear – but it is quite amazing how many subjects he touches upon that are still perfectly relevant, such as dysfunctional oil-rich countries and the glut of unemployed and overqualified graduates (already!). Incidentally, people should read everything by Aron. Most of it is available in English (The Opium of the Intellectuals [AK: Click to buy], Progress and Disillusion, War and Peace between Nations, Clausewitz…) but it is worth learning the French language just to be able to know his thoughts in the original.
Second, read everything by the great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, and in particular Age of Extremes [AK: Click to buy], his history of the “Short Twentieth Century”. It is world history but Europe dominates it. He is a very lucid, very balanced and incredibly erudite historian and you can only come out of his books feeling more knowledgeable and intelligent.
Third, I have some trouble. I have yet to read a really good book on the EU actually. Tony Judt’s Postwar is more of a continental encyclopedia and doesn’t really deal with the EU. All the books that explain the EU tend to be textbook-style and very boring. I’ve heard Alan S. Milward’s The European Rescue of the Nation-State and Edgar Morin’s Penser l’Europe are very good, the latter is resting on my bookshelf, but I’ve yet to read them. Jeremy Rifkin’s The European Dream [AK: Click to buy] and John McCormick’s The European Superpower are worth reading but are pop works rather than “great”.
I suppose I will settle on Perry Anderson’s The New Old World [AK: Click to buy]. It is a very good introduction to Europe today from a Marxist perspective. As such it is mostly critical but like Hobsbawm very informed and provides a very good overview of various national politics, enlargement, the EU itself and EU integration theory (if you’re into that sort of thing…).
The US vs. EU quality of life debate may be cliché and overdone, but I can’t help asking a Europe buff this question: which would you say offers the preferable socio-economic model? (OK, it’s obvious from your posts that EU > USA. Please expound.)
The first point I want to make is that anyone who claims lack of “government” systematically leads to more economic efficiency and better outcomes is simply misinformed, wrong and perhaps arguing in very bad faith. You have the whole history of industrial civilization contradicting them. Look at 19th century America, Bismarckian Germany, Meiji Japan, Stalin’s Soviet Union, postwar Europe and Japan, the “Asian Tigers” or China today: each of these countries achieved stunning economic and industrial growth with some combination of tariffs (all of them, basically), industrial policy (publicly-funded railroads), mercantilism (support for export-oriented “national champions”, the undervalued Yuan) or even outright State control of the economy.
So I get pretty frustrated with the whole Republican spiel about laissez-faire dynamism and sclerotic Europe. You have to be incredibly ignorant of economic history – and I would say they very probably are – to believe what they do and the slurs they sling at Europe to justify the economic and social mess they’re making of their own country.
The second point is that though I am not an economist or an expert on economic or industrial policy, I can read statistics and they tend to indicate that modern civilization leads us to produce and consume more without this necessarily adding to either national well-being or personal happiness. It is true that the US’s GDP per capita is significantly higher than Europe’s. Why is this? It is due to a proportionally larger and younger active population, to longer working hours, and – it is true – to very high productivity (slightly higher than in most European countries).
But what have they done with this wealth? The numbers are eloquent. Americans eat so poorly and are so inactive that generals warn youth obesity is a threat to recruitment and national security. Energy efficiency and transport are catastrophic: the US emits almost 40% more CO2 than Europe (including Turkey and the Balkans) despite having a smaller economy and over 300 million less people. And it isn’t like the transport system is any good! Incidentally, this inefficiency, beyond environmental concerns, is a completely needless attack on America’s energy independence and national security.
The healthcare system is an economic and social disaster, costing almost twice as much per capita as that of France (one of the more expensive European healthcare systems), for not noticeably better and much more unequal outcomes. So much for “market efficiency.” Then there’s the prison-industrial complex, some 2.3 million people behind bars, on the scale of the Soviet gulag and by far the most in the world today, with many millions more under probation and other forms of police-state supervision. This reduces the unemployment figures and provides jobs for prison wardens in certain districts, but the costs are huge: billions of dollars wasted are nothing compared to the ruin this has inflicted on the black community. This is not due principally to excess criminality, but to draconian drug laws, discriminatory justice, weak welfare, and a conscious decision that the defense of the socio-economic system should be done in the most coercive way possible.
Most of these problems are not inherent to the American character or even US politics. They can be traced back, very precisely, to the failure of Lyndon Johnson’s Liberalism and the triumph of Ronald Reagan’s Conservatism. That was when the country and its political leadership completely failed to address oil dependence, the expanding prison population, embraced the doctrine of eternal war as an integral part of American nationalism, lost the egalitarian tendency, and so on.
If anything, I do not champion Europe’s various economic and welfare models. Europe is far from perfect and no one claims it is. It’s simply that the American alternative is unalloyed crap and the discourse about it, particularly by Republicans, is so manifestly false, hollow and hypocritical. An informed person could only see the US model for what it is: sickeningly inefficient and unjust. Even Americans see this: when Americans say in polls they want the income distribution on Sweden (easily the most “Communist” country today) but elect a Republican Congress, my brain simply can’t cope with fathoming that level cognitive dissonance in the American public (you made this point once). [AK: You mean here, where I talk of American false consciousness?] It is literally maddening.
As this blog focuses quite a lot on Russia, I can’t avoid asking you for your thoughts on EU – Russia relations. Are they improving or worsening? Is it at all plausible for Russia to enter the EU by 2025, and would it serve either of the two parties’ interests?
I think relations are good. There are no fundamental problems. Of course there are serious divisions within Europe – the new members understandably being very suspicious. (Although I like to tell them it only took a few years for France and Germany to make up after the Second World War…) Russia’s relations with France and Germany, incidentally, are very good. Paris and Moscow have similar visions of a multipolar world and both aspire to be genuine world powers while Berlin and Moscow are united by economic collaboration that can get downright incestuous (see Gerhard Schröder).
I cannot say what Russia’s destiny is. On the one hand, Russia and its near-abroad make up one of the four great poles of Western civilization, the others being (Western) Europe, North America and Latin America. That is to say as an economic, cultural and geopolitical space, it is and has long been distinct from “Europe” and, in my opinion, Russia needs to think about how it can weld the post-Soviet space into some kind of coherent economic and social union. I am not someone who believes that much was gained by the replacement of a stable Soviet Union with the collection of ethnic conflicts, impoverished and corrupt oligarchies, and poxy Central Asian dictatorships we have now.
On the other hand, I often think Russia must be reconciled with Europe in some way. There is an undeniable kinship and shared history but I don’t see how closer ties could work in practice. We are still very, very different and I don’t see all that much convergence. I think there is no chance of membership by 2025. Maybe by 2050 if Russia continues to grow but also becomes much more democratic. On the other hand, in the long run, how could Russia not join? The level of economic interdependence is always growing and the logic of regional integration often genuinely ineluctable. It would certainly make the linguistic situation very interesting if the Union has 150 million Russophones and perhaps more if Ukraine and others join…
How dangerous do you consider Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas? With the anti-nuclear fallout post Fukushima, and France’s recent banning of gas fracking, do you think this dependence will grow in the next decade?
I don’t think it is all that dangerous. Russia needs European money almost as much as Europe needs gas. Russia can pick a fight with smallish poor Eastern European countries but I don’t see what it could possibly gain in conflicts with its Western European partners and the gatekeepers to the biggest economic area in the world.
I am not sold on nuclear as a way of reducing energy independence. It can be used en masse to provide almost all your electricity, but electricity is only about 20% of the energy we use! A lot depends on whether renewables become a non-negligible source of energy and the extent to which fossil fuels are replaced by electricity (particularly in transport). Clearly nuclear has taken a catastrophic hit in Europe though, everyone but France is pretty much giving it up. France will maintain its capacity however and who can say which way the wind will blow in 10 or 15 years?
One of the biggest Russian gripes regarding Europe is its travel restrictions. To visit many European countries, Russians need to expend considerable time and effort to procure a visa. Is a visa-free regime possible within the next 5 years?
Access to its labor market is one of the most valuable things the EU can grant to another country. It is also, today, one of the most controversial due to the current anti-immigrant sentiment and race-baiting politicians. I can’t really say whether a visa-free regime will be possible within five years.
On the one hand, the very charming and funny Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov said in an interview said he was upset by the recent developments in Europe because it would undermine his negotiations for a visa-free regime (by the way a very interesting interview covering lots of other subjects).
On the other hand, I was very surprised last November when EU granted visa-free travel rights to Albanians and Bosnians. They’re the sort of foreigners whose alleged criminality politicians would normally make noise about. The European Commission, which has little power itself, would normally cave in to the demands of said politicians.
HARD Talk with Craig Willy
ANATOLY KARLIN: I know that you have a great deal of enthusiasm for the European project. However, many observers – including myself – are skeptical about its longterm sustainability. The economic crisis has fueled popular resentment, e.g. the Greeks cursing outside financial authorities for imposing steep cuts to public spending, while the Germans deride them for their fiscal profligacy and dislike having to bail them out (recent polls suggest a majority of Germans want the Deutsche Mark back). The political right is enjoying a Europe-wide resurgence. National interests appear to be diverging, e.g. with France focusing on the Mediterranean, while Germany deepens ties with Russia. Border controls are reappearing. The global economic situation is cloudy, and high oil prices seem to be here to stay, presenting a further panoply of challenges to European solidarity. So is ever deeper union a realistic prospect, or is there a chance that the EU will end up as little more than a glorified free trade area by 2020?
CRAIG WILLY: As a disclaimer, I’ve gotten much, much more critical of EU officials and pols since I’ve come to Brussels. I am still wedded to the project however and I think most of the nonsense EU officials engage in is ultimately due to structural constraints imposed on them by the national governments.
The EU is not much more than an economic entity but it is much more than a free trade area. In fact, as soon as you have a commitment to a customs union (e.g.: a common external tariff and common trade negotiations with foreigners) and genuine single market, you can’t help but be a de facto economic power and have substantial integration, such as a common EU patent, common EU property rights, common EU approach to GMOs, and so on. The EU remains the world’s biggest economy and the truth is most international relations today involve economic issues above all. As such, the EU isn’t a wholly inappropriate entity for the (let’s call it) postmodern world.
I am pessimistic about further integration for at least another ten years. A lot depends on whether the national governments decide to reform the EU to actually make it democratic. There needs to be a connection between the elections to the European Parliament and the President of the European Commission. There is nothing in the treaties that makes this impossible; the pan-European parties only need to get their act together and agree on candidates. Commissioner Michel Barnier recently suggested that this happen and that the Commission and Council presidencies incidentally be merged. If this were done, there would be a genuine European politics and an identifiable face/mandated chief executive for the EU.
It is possible if they want it. Democracy is impossible without a common language but English has long been establishing itself as the lingua franca among Europeans. South Africa and India, much poorer countries with if anything harsher internal ethnic divisions, prove that multilingual and multiethnic democracy is possible. Of course, national leaders don’t want a democratic EU, like the old Italian and German princely states they prefer to maintain their own power, they prefer division to the common good. It doesn’t help that the current panoply of European leaders – Merkel, Sarkozy and Berlusconi in particular – are absolutely disgraceful for their lack of ambition and venality.
ANATOLY KARLIN: The discourse on Europe’s demography is decidedly pessimistic, though perhaps unreasonably so (in 2010, France may have overtaken the US in total fertility rates). Nonetheless, the pessimism is not without cause, as France (and the UK) are exceptions rather than the rule. Most of Europe, including the biggest countries – Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland – have been reproducing at well below replacement level rates for over two decades. What impact will this have on Europe’s economic dynamism and the welfare state? And in a world of limits to growth, could Europe’s demographic clouds have a silver lining?
CRAIG WILLY: I think the world needs less babies. Europe is less wasteful environmentally than America, but if every Asian and African achieved a European standard of living the Earth would become unlivable and exhausted within a few years.
Ageing is a huge challenge and will put incredible strain on Europe’s finances and lead to reduced power in the world. Low birthrates can also be a problem and the relative decline of France in Europe in the 19th Century can be directly attributed to the fertility of its German and British neighbors.
On the other hand, these are universal challenges characteristic of modern civilization. I would point to three things that make me optimistic about Europe:
- Birth rates on the whole are collapsing in developing countries. UN reports stress that, by the time they reach our oldish demographic profile, they will not have achieved the West’s current levels of wealth. As such, their pension, economic and health problems will be significantly worse than what Europe faces. (I hope that doesn’t sound like Schadenfreude!)
- East Asia’s birth rates and ageing are even more catastrophic than Europe’s! There is a very clear pattern here: an East Asian country develops very fast, Western commentators fret about our “decadence” and how we will be bought out by said East Asians, said East Asian country turns more-or-less gracefully into a fortified retirement home. I think of Japan of course but also of the forgotten “Tigers” South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. They all have birth rates around 1.2-1.4, lower than Europe. China, big scary China, is if anything in a worse situation. It is still very poor on a per capita basis but its fertility rate has dropped below 1.5. Given the trend in neighboring countries, I don’t know that the one-child policy is the only reason for this.
- The EU’s latest demography report points to some very interesting and counter-intuitive trends in terms of future family patterns that suggest godless French-style cohabitation, late-age childbearing and strong childcare policies are the cause of higher birthrates in certain countries. It is definitely worth reading the introduction at least. Another thing was that it points to the recent increase of EU fertility to 1.6 and perhaps soon to 1.7. It is unevenly divided across the Union but it not all that different from American non-Hispanic whites’ 1.8. Of course America has massive immigration and, as such, the US’s demographic weight in the world will continue to increase massively, while Europe’s has basically peaked. Speaking of “Eurabia”, Hispanics have a fertility rate of 2.9, almost 50% over the average, and immigration is not really letting up. Isn’t it much more likely that we see a Hispanicization of America? Certainly California, New Mexico, Texas and Florida look like they might be destined to return to Latin civilization…
ANATOLY KARLIN: You’re not the biggest fan of the “Eurabia” thesis. I totally agree with you, but I will play devil’s advocate. Please explain why you discount the possibility that: (1) the number of Muslims in Europe is under-counted (e.g. due to political correctness); (2) that migration from Muslim countries will not grow in the coming years, on the background of Europe’s demographic problems and population stress in Africa and the Middle East; and (3) the increasing radicalization of Europe’s Muslim populations (e.g. one third of British Muslims support the death penalty for apostasy).
CRAIG WILLY: I can’t talk to the statistics. I think they are basically accurate: 10% in France, 2-5% in most Western European countries, zero in Eastern Europe, and a certain number in Britain but outnumbered by immigrants of other origins (Indians, West Indians, Christian Africans, not to mention other Europeans…). The number of Muslims will increase over the next 40 years but will not be overwhelming.
There is clearly a strong, perhaps growing, cultural divide between European “natives” and European Muslims. Muslims are more conservative on the whole, somewhat like Hispanics in the United States but the difference is definitely more pronounced. I am not convinced Muslims are radicalizing. In France and Italy, the places where Muslims now live used to be poor working-class white areas. These areas tended to vote Communist (20-40% of the vote in France and Italy used to be Communist). I don’t see even the beginnings of mass political radicalization among European Muslims despite the fact they live in if anything more difficult circumstances. I actually would like more radical politics, not Islamist, but perhaps more of France’s anticolonial Indigènes de la République, its answer to America’s Black Power movement.
I am not convinced European countries are fully capable of accepting Muslims as equals and integrating them. Many Europeans seem to think the immigrant can and must integrate first before he is allowed to have the same job, have his children go to a decent school, or move into a nice area. It’s obviously a chicken and egg thing but many people aren’t able to accept this.
The climate and discourse in France in particular is getting pretty scary, the Front National acquiring a veneer of respectability and professionalism, and Sarkozy’s center-right actually embracing its anti-Muslim discourse. E.g.: the burqa ban, the “polygamous welfare-frauds” (our “welfare queens”), the ridiculous “Debate on National Identity,” openly racist statements by ministers (quote “too many Muslims”). It is quite depressing.
Europeans have demons sleeping inside them, like every other human being in the world. But our history has meant our demons came out in a horrifying way. Less than 70 years ago we slaughtered as many Jews and Roma we could get our hands on in a fit of organized psychosis and industrialized murder. Less than 20 years ago some Europeans decided there were “too many Muslims” and that there was only one solution to this “problem.” It’s something worth worrying about. We live in what are, even with the recession, relatively good and peaceful times. I worry for the Muslims if we ever started having really serious economic and social difficulties in Europe.
Back to the Future
Many pundits don’t like to put their money where they mouth is. Though I’m sure you’re not that type, feel free to confirm it by making a few falsifiable predictions about Europe’s future. After a few years, we’ll see if you were worth listening to.
Oh dear, I’ll have a crack at it:
- No significant additional integration until 2020 or even 2025. No significant “rolling back” either however.
- The Eurozone survives and expands to several Eastern European countries by 2020. Britain does not join.
- The cultural divorce between Britain and the continent will grow. It will perhaps become insurmountable if Scotland acquires its independence. Britain will stay inside the EU however albeit with its continued semi-obstructive “yes-but-no” denialism.
- The European economy will have near-zero growth in the coming decades for demographic reasons, productivity will continue to rise, its technological leadership will continue, and its overall size might increase if enlargement continues.
- Turkey will not join before at least 2035, if ever. Most of the Balkans will have joined by then.
- Socialism will not make a significant return barring an even more serious economic crisis. Social equity in Europe will decline somewhat, but not as much as in America.
- Race relations will get worse.
- European leaders will continue to be wholly materially and psychologically dependent on the Americans. They will not develop an independent foreign policy or a “common” foreign policy.
- The socio-economic gap between the US and Europe will grow, as will the cultural one on abortion, gay rights, militarism and the like.
- “European politics” will very slowly but surely emerge as interdependence becomes more glaring, the use of English spreads, and the Union is democratized. It’s an apparently undetectable process, like tectonic plates moving, but you can very clearly see the trend decade on decade.
What are your future blogging plans?
I plan on continuing with Letters from Europe but am also looking to start much more semi-professional and collaborative blogging.
These include revamping Future Challenges, a blogging platform on long-term trends funded by the Bertelsmann Stiftung. As its Western Europe editor, I’m hoping to turn it into the standard for analyzing the continent’s long-term trends on energy, demographics, migration and economics.
I’m also involved with bloggingportal.eu, a very useful aggregator that brings together the sleepy world of EU bloggers. Its readership is not incredibly high, but it includes a fair number of prominent EU journalists and communications professionals. I highly recommend you sign up to its daily RSS of best posts from the EU blogosphere (a very good filter).
Finally, I’m thinking of launching some sort of multilingual pan-European blog. It’s still a little sketchy but it would involve something like national-oriented bloggers writing in German or French (and thus it being possible to get reasonable audiences, unlike for EU-centric blogs) while also translating these posts systematically into an English main feed. You’d then have overlapping global, EU and national audiences. I don’t know if it can work but my dream would be a cross between Glenn Greenwald (God bless him) and Fistful of Euros.
Arthur Miller once said “a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself.” I think that is true. Currently, even European leaders don’t read each others’ newspapers. They discover themselves and their continent, collectively, through the pages of The Economist, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Besides the particular political agenda of these publications, there is something wrong here in having the “continental conversation” through media that are either foreign or from not the most committed European country. Besides that, Europe is hardly their main focus. I hope to contribute in a small way to creating that infamous “European public space”.
I wish you the best of luck in that endeavor, Craig, and thank you for answering S/O’s questions!
As I said at the start, I’m planning to revive the Watching the Russia Watchers (and interesting others) series again in the next few days, carrying on from the interviews with Kevin Rochrock (A Good Treaty) and Peter Lavelle (Russia Today) last year.
If you wish me to interview you or another Russia watcher, feel free to contact me.