How to Avoid the Collapse of Europe

February 2016
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One of the main twists in the contemporary discussion of Europe is that we are too Eurocentric to know that we are unable to see ourselves in any other way. In this sense, the conflict in Ukraine is especially revealing: it is viewed completely differently within Europe than it is outside of it. Clearly, the current European crisis, which has already lasted for seven years, differs significantly from other world crises. I remember when it started in 2008. At a meeting, José Manuel Barroso, then president of the European Commission, posed a direct question to us analysts and experts: “What can you do for us?” My answer was also direct. “Not much,” I answered honestly.

I am not a specialist on the subject of integration. But I am an expert in disintegration. I know how collapse happens – this is what I have been studying my entire life. I studied the Balkans, so I know how they collapsed, and before that, I learned how the Soviet Union collapsed. That is precisely why I told Barroso: “What we can offer you is a project on the political logic of disintegration.”

As a result, over the course of almost two years, we gave seminars and discussions at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. We invited historians and politicians to these discussions, where we collected various examples of disintegration, including the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia.

Signs of a Collapse

From these discussions, three main themes emerged that are fundamental to understanding the current crisis in Europe. The first is the unexpectedness of the collapse. It is important to remember that even a year or two before the collapse of the Soviet Union, such an event seemed unthinkable. Indeed, in December 1990, the foremost group of experts at the Pentagon, including the most experienced specialists in Soviet Union affairs, put the likelihood of the Soviet Union collapsing at 20%. Similarly, the communists insisted that, due to the high level of interdependence, the end of the USSR was impossible and illogical. As the subsequent events demonstrate, many things that do not make economic sense do in fact frequently occur.

To put this issue another way: the problem that we have today is, in part, that we think of the European Union as something self-evident. The more insistently we do this, the greater the risk of disintegration. The conviction that something cannot possibly collapse leads to very risky behavior.

The second theme that crystalized over the course of the discussions in Vienna was the fact that disintegration is caused by intrinsic factors. And, despite the fact that the anti-integration bloc never dominates the pro-integration one (even in the case of the Soviet Union, most wanted it to continue existing), there is a special type of political dynamic that appears and begins to develop according to its own logic. It is precisely this logic that begins to take hold within a society.

The third theme that emerged as a result of our discussions was the observation that the collapse of large-scale projects does not begin on the periphery. Thus, Bulgaria or Georgia could not lead to the collapse of the European Union, no matter how persistently they were to try to do so. Disintegration begins at the center and arises when the winners begin to feel a sense of loss in the project.

This is precisely why Poland is so important for many in Europe. If Poland – which many agree has gained the most from European integration – begins to vacillate on the EU, then many other countries (including Germany) will also begin to have doubts about it.

But this does not mean that the European elite must begin inculcating “identity” into European citizens. Doing so simply forces an artificial and impermanent structure onto society that is bound not to take hold. For better or worse, there has already been more than one attempt to create a European...

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka