The Price of Optimism. A Conversation with Geert Mak about Europe in Our Times

In this wide-ranging conversation occasioned by the release of his The Dream of Europe. Travels in the Twenty-First Century, Geert Mak discusses why he chose to write a sequel to In Europe. Travels Through the Twentieth Century; how interconnections have led to new tensions; how the European and the democrat in him have quarreled; how he traces undercurrents in society; and how important it is to understand the sources of despair.

Ferenc LaczóYour new book is titled in English translation The Dream of Europe. Travels in the Twenty-First Century, the original Dutch title of which was Great Expectations. It is meant as a sequel to In Europe. Travels Through the Twentieth Century from 2004. May I ask what motivated you to write a sequel about the first two decades of the twenty-first century? What were the special challenges when attempting to interpret contemporary developments, and how does this new book differ from In Europe? And since you published the Dutch original back in 2019, shortly before the beginning of the pandemic and have added a substantial epilogue since, may I also ask whether you would perhaps have written a slightly different book had recent and ongoing developments already been known to you at the time of its completion? In other words, has the pandemic transformed your perspective on the early twenty-first century?

Geert Mak:  I never thought to write a follow up covering the first decades of this century – I wrote about the twentieth century, and I thought that was enough.  But the second decade of this century was so turbulent for Europe, and many mistakes which were made in the 1990s came to the surface in this decade, meaning especially the faults in the construction of the European Union, that I have changed my mind. Around 2015, I was writing a book about an old family in Amsterdam, which became The Many Lives of Jan Six: A Portrait of an Amsterdam Dynasty, and I was livingmost of the time in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, but I became convinced ever more that I have to write again about what’s happening now, because whether you like it or not, we are making history right now and living in historic times. 

You’re right, it is rather complicated to write a history while you are living in it. Good history writing needs time, sometimes decades, and when you are in the middle of it, you can make some observations, sometimes good observations, but often you cannot see what’s happening in the long term – you need distance for that. For the first decade, I could develop some distance but, honestly, when writing about the last years I became more and more a journalist. But I thought that I’m not in such bad company: already in medieval times there were monks writing chronicles who were sort of medieval journalists and what they produced are considered quite good quality sources even today. It helped a lot that I invented a young student who was writing a book about these decades in 2069 and could lead a permanent discussion in my head with her and ask, what do you think about these times? In that way, I managed to write a book about the last years, even about the last year.  

I finished the Dutch edition in September 2019. Just a few months later the corona virus started to spread. That was indeed a difficult situation because I knew that it would be very important and would put things upside down again, but in what exact way very difficult to tell. I decided to write a letter to my imaginary student in 2069, describing how I felt and what I saw at the time, but not more, because we are living in times of uncertainty. For instance, everybody in March 2020 accepted that there would be an enormous economic downturn, but instead of that, we now have inflation – a totally different situation than we had expected. But on the other hand, every journalist is writing a bit of history and every historian needs to act a bit like a journalist, so it is not so difficult to play on both these fields. At the same time, I am certain that when a student will read the book in 2069, she will be interested in it but will at times only laugh at what I say.

A main theme in The Dream of Europe seems to be how the great expectations of the turn of the millennium, when you completed In Europe, have been disappointed as a result of the repeated crises and the insufficient, or downright problematic European responses. There has been a decline of trust in European societies and even a collapse of confidence of sorts regarding the future. And as you argue, we have seen a sharp rise in anxiety, of fear and some more quiet forms of despair and resignation. You even state in the book that the great European achievements of the 1990s contained some fundamental internal contradictions and that they proved some ten years later to be the source of despair, anxiety, and abuse. As you formulate at one point, the European Union, which you call a kind of upside-down federation, appears to be in a survival mode today. A particular theme that you emphasize is the gap and the disconnect between the Union as an institution and the Europe of citizens. You remark, for example, that those who study Europe from below tend to have very little access to what we might call the ‘Brussels bubble’. You also cite your own anger at how little has been achieved in terms of meaningful political democratization of the Union. You conclude that the disconnect between the two levels has resulted in a conflict of loyalty for many citizens, including yourself. Would you mind elaborating on this quarrel between the European and the democrat within yourself that you cite at the end of this major chapter of yours?

Looking back, the crisis of European Union in the second decade of this century was not the source of the problem. The source of these crises was the optimism and triumphalism in the 1990s. This mood was, of course, present in a lot of Eastern European countries too, but in Western Europe, people really had no idea what those changes after 1989 meant to people in Eastern Europe. When you talk to people in Poland or Hungary but especially in Poland, they had terrible years in the 1990s, whereas we in the West simply thought the collapse of the Wall is a story of liberation and nothing else. 

In a lot of countries, there were also strong nationalistic movements. In our triumphalist mood we refused to see that. In that moment of optimism, we accepted constructions which were not really thought out and we created a lot of halfway constructions. 

For instance, to begin with the euro, you have one currency but without one common financial policy; Schengen borders are open with free travel, but without a common immigration policy. The whole European Union is a kind of a federation, but also not a federation, it is a half federation, and because of this construction, it cannot act as the geopolitical superpower which it is. We may not like to be, but we are very powerful. We are one of the super tankers, but a supertanker with 27 captains at the wheel.

The European Union it is really a learning organization. For instance, a lot of mistakes which were made after the crisis of 2008 were not repeated in the Covid crisis. The European Central Bank reacted very fast this time. But it is a system of compromises, always, again and again. That’s why it is such an inflexible system and not a very attractive one. Everybody now seems to be talking about a New Deal. But when you look at the real New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt, there you see that Roosevelt organized a lot of new systems very fast and very decisively. For the European Union it is impossible to organize it in that way. 

Roosevelt was also very clever, while he organized an economic New Deal, he organized in a kind of psychological New Deal too, which meant a kind of hidden propaganda for American democracy. 

Roosevelt had an enormous sense of urgency in the crisis and was very afraid that a dictatorial system would take over the United States too. That mood also exists in the European Union today. But Roosevelt’s offensive was fairly successful because it was based on what we might call real world policies. 

He built new schools very fast, he built new roads very fast, and so on. I have the feeling that they know very well in Brussels what is necessary, but because of the construction of the European Union, it is almost impossible to implement such new policies. 

I will add that there is improvement. When I wrote my first book in 2004 there was almost no European discussion; every country was looking at itself and a little bit at Brussels, but not much. Due to the crises of the last decade, a lot of people are discussing more on a European level. We have something like a European coffee house starting, especially in the last years: we have the same discussions everywhere, we follow each other’s elections much more closely, and we understand each other much better. The discussions today are really different, but that is not enough, and that’s the problem.  

While I’m not at all sure about the future, I think the European Union can only survive after a major reorganization – either the Union survives in a new way, or it will melt down. There is no third alternative. It is a ship with too many construction mistakes, and because of those, it cannot really motivate people at the moment. 

The European Union is thinking in international terms, in terms of space, in terms of expansion, and everybody likes that. But for a lot of people place is also very important. To belong somewhere, to follow some traditions, those connect to very deep emotions. In that way the European Union is also out of balance. That is the deep background why people after so many years still don’t feel themselves at home in the European Union. But we also need to remember how long it took France, for instance, to really become one country. Such processes do take a really long time and I just hope the European Union has enough of it.

I wanted us to zoom in on one of the subjects which has been a source of a lot of discussions and debates in recent years, namely that the European project was really meant to bring us closer together and build an ‘ever closer union.’ But we have experienced significant divergences between various parts of the continent, between the northern and southern parts of the eurozone, or between the ‘Western core’ of the European project and the new eastern states, whom you might call post-post-Communist by now. I was wondering whether you could say a bit about why you think these kinds of divides between macro regions may have become sharper in the early twenty-first century, and in what ways could the European project help overcome, or at least alleviate these divides. Or would you perhaps rather say that such divides within Europe are the future we are bound to face?

There are more fights because we are closer together. That sounds like a paradox, of course. Before, the economy of Greece was not important for us here in the Netherlands, but now because we have the same currency it is important. The situation of the judges in Poland or in Hungary was less than nothing for the rest of Europe, but because we have one system of law now and we are doing much more business together than 20 years ago, it has become a really important matter. We are so much more interconnected now, that our divisions have become clearer. 

When I was a student a friend of mine spent a month in Rome. 

When he came back, we spent evenings with him to talk about Rome, how it was, how it smelled etc., whereas all young people seem to travel across Europe these days and that is no longer a matter of particular concern for others. That change is a symbol of today’s normality for me, which also makes me rather optimistic.

Having said that, there are enormous differences between the political cultures of the North and the South. The crisis was waiting to happen. We also have the juridical crisis with Poland, which is an important crisis and another one that could be foretold. I would say this crisis touches the very fundamentals of the European Union. The European Commission now really has to stand on its feet and show some spine. If they make too many compromises, we are in big trouble because then the glue of the whole system will no longer hold. Even though I love compromises and I love peace, given the current situation, I think a compromise can be very, very dangerous – even more dangerous than a big crisis with Poland. 

The European Union is a club and people can leave the European Union, but the Union cannot throw members out. That is very strange, of course. When you have a golf club and one of the members refuses to follow the rules they have to quit. 

The strange thing is that most of the current discussion takes place in Brussels and in other European capitals across the continent, whereas the discussion should really have been held in Poland. I would not be worried about the outcome of such a discussion because well more than half of Polish citizens love to be in the European Union. 

To my mind, it is a result of all those half constructions that most of the discussion is not taking place in Warsaw today.

That’s an insightful explanation of where we are today. I wanted to ask you a somewhat different question next concerning the method and the composition of the book The Dream of Europe. You mix narratives of high politics with the voices of ordinary people. You draw on lots of data and you cite leading intellectuals and expert opinions, and at the same time, you sketch life experiences, including six short chapters that focus exclusively on biographies. You also contrast the tremendously fast changes in places like Amsterdam with the slowness and indeed almost imperceptibility of change in rural areas of the continent whether in Friesland where you grew up, in rural Hungary or other places. In fact, you begin your book in Kirkenes, the extreme north-east of Norway, which I think is a fascinating choice because changes might indeed become visible earlier over there. Would you be willing to discuss how you selected the specific stories in the book? What is this combination of all these different voices and different types of insights meant to result in?

When I was working for the public radio a long time ago, we made a lot of documentaries and stories about common people. We had a program where we stayed for few days or sometimes an entire month in a certain place. I learned a lot about how interesting oral history is at the time. A lot of people may be making things up, so you need to doublecheck the facts, but the experiences and feelings of people are also very important. My book In Europe was also the result of a project which I did with my newspaper: I traveled a whole year through Europe.

For my new book, I talked with a few people who already featured in my previous book. At other times I was plain lucky. For instance, a friend of mine had a banker friend who was at the heart of a major bank during the crisis. This world is very closed, but because I was a friend of a friend, we talked extensively, and he was very open. That was a fascinating story – when the banking crisis was going on in 2008, we as normal citizens never realized how dangerous the situation got. But I was also looking for new people. For instance, I really wanted to talk with some immigrants about the refugee crisis. 

The eventual selection was thus partly the result of a conscious choice, and the book also includes what came my way and turned out to be fascinating. This way of writing is important for me because it allows me to trace some undercurrents in society. 

A lot of people were really surprised when the wave of populism came up in France and Italy or when Brexit happened. But when you walk through provincial towns, where one third of the shops are closed and at least 20% of the houses are abandoned, and where there is a big train station, but no train at all and just rusty railways, when you are living in such a town, you easily become desperate. The old socialist movement, the communist movement, even the Christian democratic movement provided a kind of hope for people – they had all kinds of clubs, they organized dances etc. This whole system has collapsed and so people are really living in the middle of a cultural wasteland land and a political wasteland. 

You recurrently allude to the relevance of generational experience and to some of the core beliefs of members of your generation. Would you perhaps say that your perspective is in some sense typical, is in some sense recognizably of a person born in Western Europe shortly after the Second World War? And would you mind discussing how your perspectives have changed over the past twenty or so years? Have you in some sense become more critical and more skeptical when it comes to an elite-led European project, and at the same time perhaps somewhat keener on home and place as opposed to the space and dynamism that this continent-wide project tries to assure?

I’m indeed a Baby Boomer, I’m a white man, and I’m living in the west of Europe. Those features have partly formed my perspective. On the other hand, I’m a journalist and an experienced one – and sometimes I think I am a good one too. When you are a journalist, you’re trained to look around, to listen, to pick up signals of what people are feeling and to ask questions and be open. To read, to talk with people, to be surprised and then to try to explain that surprise really helps a lot.

For instance, for me, it was very important to understand what happened in Eastern Europe in the 1990s – we already talked a little bit about that. We in the West leaned back and thought that we have won conclusively, so now we shall simply invest some money in Eastern Europe, and then they will take over our system, and we will all live the end of history. In reality, for a lot of people those were very difficult times. Communism was a repressive system, but a lot of things were rather well organized for common people back then. 

The collapse of that system gave people a lot of insecurity. Anti-communist movements were often not anti-communist, but rather anti-Soviet Union. They were anti-colonization, nationalistic movements. 

You see that very strongly in Poland, but also in Hungary. We were totally blind to that in the West at the time and the EU has been paying the price.

When you look at the new populist movements, we need to understand their sources in order to find an answer. Many people feel neglected. When you look at how their lives are today, how their life conditions have often deteriorated from a simple but secure way of living, and how they are now living on flexible contracts, then you understand that there’s a lot of anger. When then someone comes along and whistles a song about immigrants who are to blame for everything there are people who want to listen because they are desperate. My problem is that in Brussels the so-called elite, they’re living in their own cocoon. 

I think they have some really good ideas, especially about the climate, but what I also see, especially in Western Europe, is a special kind of elite: the management elite. 

In my own country the Netherlands, it is really a disease of sorts. The elite born out of the neoliberal thinking thinks everything is a marketplace. The Netherlands has been for decades a dogmatic kind of neoliberal country – an Albania of neoliberalism, which is Soviet times was a very hardline country. When you look at healthcare, the housing situation or education, you see that within the government and in lower organizations there is a new kind of apparatchik. In my view, there is not only a political crisis, but a bureaucratic crisis as well. That is partly because the bureaucrats are changed every few years, that’s typical fitness management culture, so they don’t feel responsible for things on the long term. It is an irresponsible elite, because they can only think in market terms at a time when we really need enormous public energy to solve problems.

Since your previous book has been widely translated and read across Europe and I’m certain that the sequel The Dream of Europe will be read in a similar way as well, in closing I wish to ask you to talk more about the European conversation. How have these conversations changed in recent decades, and have they become more meaningful in your view? Last but not least, would you say that your two major books on European themes are attempts to generate such a European conversation and to generate some kind of European understanding?

No. Yes. Perhaps. Writing this kind of book is something within myself – you suddenly become pregnant with a book, and you get such a book as a child, and then you see this book grow up walking, and then going to more and more countries. It finds its way in the world. You say, how fantastic, my child is doing well.

I never wrote In Europe to bring people together, but it has indeed helped the European discussion. I wrote it because I wanted to know how things went in European history and how people involved felt about it, and I thought a lot of readers would be interested in those matters too. The same is the case with this book – I had a sort of urgent feeling about what has happened in the last twenty years with all those crises. 

This book has indeed done very well in the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark already, but I never start a book saying, I want to launch such and such a discussion. It comes from my belly and does not derive from a clear intellectual purpose.

Concerning the debate, I would say that when you talk with those working for the EU in Brussels, they are often very intelligent. Their quality is generally very high. On the other hand, a lot of them are believers. It is now a little bit better, but for years it was almost impossible to write critically about the European Union without angry reactions from them. I have close friends who are very active journalists and have travelled to all the refugee camps in Europe. At the same time, they were working in Brussels, and when they came back having made TV shows about the situation, a lot of people were simply angry with them. I also had discussions in Brussels which were very formal and not really interesting – and a few were crazy ones too. 

On the other hand, I see more and more members of the Europeans Parliament who do a very good job and are fairly well informed. I think you see that also in the cultural field today: a lot of serious theatre people and documentary makers think, produce and work on the European level. 

It is very important to be critical, to correct the political system, and at the same time to deepen our feelings and to develop a new kind of feeling of togetherness. 

It is not by coincidence that a lot of people are pleading for a special endowment for culture to help it recover after the pandemic, a 2% for culture. After all, culture can give a deeper foundation to the European Union. It is also a very good medicine against all the hatred and polarization which is going on. The populists are always talking about elites, and I hate to say it but sometimes they are right to insist that a lot of elites are living in their own bubble. But for the populists, art and culture are also a part of their negative thinking about elites. If you like polarization and when your own political future depends on more hate mongering, you will hate art too. Dictators have always hated art. That is one reason why art and the cultural field are crucially important just now.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Karen Culver.

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