Interview With Historian Tony Judt: 'Dreaming About Washington Is One Of East Europe's Great Mistakes'

Historians in the News

The future of the EU, Russia's relations with Europe, the course of American foreign policy. All have dominated headlines in recent weeks, and all are issues that renowned European historian Tony Judt has spent a lifetime stufying and writing about. He is the author of,"Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945,""Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century," and"A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe," to name just a few. Judt, who is director of the Erich Maria Remarque Institute at New York University, sat down with RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher for a broad-ranging interview about the strength of the European Union, Russia's ambitions, and what Central and Eastern Europe should expect from Washington.

RFE/RL: Professor Judt, a little over a decade ago, you wrote about the European community and asked whether the idea was a"grand illusion." Since then, you have also said that the European Union faces a dismal future because it sprang from overlapping national interests rather than a collective desire for unity. Is Europe still more focused on what divides it rather than what unites it? Is the"European project" a myth?

Tony Judt: It's easiest if one begins by remembering that it ought to be a huge paradox that the European Union -- the world's most successful transnational institutional arrangement -- grew out of the circumstances of the worst-ever European war, the Second World War.

It's not a paradox when you remember that the members of what became the EU -- before that, the European Community, before that, the European Economic Community -- were precisely those European states which, among those which had suffered worse, were still free. Obviously, those [states] which suffered the worst in the Second World War in Europe were the states that ended up under the Soviet Union; East Central Europe had a much worse war than West Europe -- more people killed, more damage, more destruction, more collapse of structures, etcetera.

But the countries that joined the European coal and steel community in '51 -- which became the Economic Community in '57-58 -- were also all countries which had either been defeated -- Germany and Italy -- or occupied -- France, Luxembourg, Belgium, [and] Holland. It did not include countries which had not been occupied -- like Britain -- or which had remained independent or neutral -- Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Scandinavia, or Sweden at any rate. And it's relevant, I think, to know this.

These were countries which, in different ways, could only recover by collaborating with each other. They were no longer either politically strong enough -- like West Germany -- or economically viable enough -- [like] Italy [and] the Netherlands at the time -- to recover alone. Or, like France, they had experienced humiliating defeat, occupation, and were beginning to experience a loss of empire -- a violent loss of empire.

And so what happened was that this sort of slow realization that took, in the French case, six years -- from the end of the Second World War to the beginning of the '50s -- the slow realization that the only path out of defeat, poverty, a return to the interwar circumstances of depression and political extremism was by one form or another of international cooperation. So it was not driven by a European ideal of"never again, war," or French and German reconciliation, and so on -- though there were of course people who talked about that. It was driven by, if you like, the logic of self interest.

RFE/RL: When the Czech Republic held the rotating EU Presidency earlier this year, it thumbed its nose quite strongly at the idea of a unified Europe, and it's not alone in its disdain.

Judt: Right, and indeed: the Czechs and the Poles today -- both presidents -- are waiting and hoping for the Irish to defeat the Lisbon Treaty [in the October 2 referendum] because [then] they'll have that as an excuse to say,"Right, we won't ratify, we won't even bring it to our parliaments -- it's defeated, it's dead, it's finished."

The background to this, of course -- and it's important -- is that all of the great successes of the European Union and its predecessors were institutional, not political. Europe was constructed institutionally; there were no votes, there were no plebiscites, no referendums. The first European Parliament election was in 1979, over 20 years after the coming of the European Economic Community. This was inevitable, and it was probably a good thing.

If you had asked the European peoples in the early 1950s, or even as late as the '60s -- and I could certainly confirm this firsthand, from personally memory -- if you had asked the French or the Germans or the Brits or the Italians, not to mention, say, the Danes or the Austrians,"Would you like to have a European Union in which you reduce your local powers, give all the power to Brussels, in return for centralized administrative and institutional structures?" You would have had a resounding negative vote. In almost every country. Maybe Luxembourg would have voted yes.

It had to be built institutionally. And it was very successfully built. Legal structures, trading structures, financial structures, for tariffs and so on. You couldn't put this to a vote in countries which had just experienced two vicious wars -- two destructive wars -- in one generation. It would have been politically impossible. The extreme left and extreme right would have opposed it, [and] the center never would have been able to support it alone.

But therefore we face a paradox today: that this magnificent structure of transnational legal institutions, transnational economic institutions, rules of law, regulations, which bind at least the European elite, if not European peoples -- which by the way is the envy of regional organizations and aspirants, I know from traveling there, in Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia -- this European achievement because it's uniquely institutional, lacks political legitimacy, it lacks deep roots in almost any of the member countries. Once you get past the sort of medieval-style traveling clerisy, people like us who think of themselves as Europeans, speak the common European language, English, and are just as at home in Brussels or Prague or Paris or London, as we might be in Berlin or Vienna or whatever -- the question is now and for 20 years has been,"How do you turn this into a political union that people identify with?"

The problem, by the way, is not the people, it's the politicians. The problem is politicians because for any given politician in Europe -- whether it's [Vaclav] Klaus in Prague, [Nicholas] Sarkozy in Paris, [Gordon] Brown in England, anyone anywhere -- the easiest way to respond to an economic problem or an international difficulty when your country is at odds with other European countries on policy is to blame Brussels, because it's a cost-free exercise. That's why treaties are being rejected, or come close to rejection [in places like] France, Ireland, the Netherlands, and other European countries. Because local politicians, essentially fighting on local issues, have used the European fall guy, so to speak, as the target for their attacks, so as to gain local popularity, on issues that have local resonance: immigration laws, the presence of foreigners, taxation rules, Brussels forcing us to do this, Brussels forcing us to do that, and no mainstream politicians -- other than in the '70s and '80s: [France's Valery Giscard d'Estaing], [Germany's Helmut] Schmidt, [France's Francois] Mitterrand, [Germany's Helmut] Kohl to some extent -- has devoted political capital to defending Europe against national criticisms. Without that, it has no chance.

RFE/RL: The last few winters in Europe have seen the same movie playing out: Russia holds one or more countries hostage over gas and or oil supplies. These countries aren't operating from a position of strength, let alone unity, and they're vulnerable to Russia picking them off. On issues as critical as energy security, can Europe unify and consolidate its political power?

Judt: Well, there are three different issues involved here. The first is, if you like, the old East-West issue. The shadow of the first 50 years after World War II still hangs over the last 20 years. That is, the sensibilities of Europe's eastern states -- Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and so on, not to speak of the neighbors further east , like Ukraine or Belarus, and so on, Georgia -- are very different toward Russia from those of Western Europe.

Western Europeans, despite the Cold War -- to some extent because of it -- are much less worried about Russia, think much less of Russia as a threat, see it as much less of a problem, than Russia's former colonies or neighbors, and that's crucial. It's very hard for your Polish or Ukrainian listeners to understand because it seems bizarre and absurd. But it's true.

And it's above all true for Germany. Most Germans, particular West Germans, look upon Russia as a natural, implicit colleague in any collaboration for European stability. This is an old story; it goes back to the 1880s and 1890s. You have two large, well-established historic powers -- economic powers, strategic powers, German-speaking Central Europe and Russia, on Europe's eastern fringes, and in between that you have lots and lots of territories and lands and peoples, and languages and religions and ethnic groups, which both [Russia and Germany] have historically regarded as colonial territory. And that colonial territory is no longer thought of that way. But some of the attitudes -- historical attitudes -- remain. So the first thing to recall is that when the English or the Germans, or as it might be, the Spanish, and certainly the French, think about Russia, they think of it as a country ‘to deal with' on more or less equal terms. But not as a threat....

The second observation -- there is a paradox here -- is that it's going to get worse, not better. The European Union's refusal to work with Turkey on a serious strategy and timetable for admission is catastrophic for Europe's attitude towards Russia, because the growing alienation of Turkey serves Russian interests.

Obviously, one only has to look at a map, not to mention a map of oil resources. By refusing to imagine Turkey as a strategic partner, the French and the Germans especially, are pushing Turkey toward Russia. I remember being struck by this at meeting in Istanbul that I went to some years ago, the instinctive response of Turks rebuffed by Europe is to say,"Very well. Our strategic alternative is, so to speak, a Central Asian power alliance with Russia, because to whom else should we look? We Turks are linguistically, historically, ethnically and economically the potential power in Central Asia. If we're not wanted in Europe, we have to look to Central Asia. And in Central Asia, our strategic partner is Russia."

So what we have done, we West Europeans, is to simultaneously say:"We want Turkey to provide us with pipelines and oil supplies coming out of the Crimea or whatever it might be. But at the same time we don't want Turks in Europe because they're not really Europeans, there are too many of them, they're too poor, they're too Muslim, etc." This plays very badly in Turkey.

And the Russians know it perfectly well. So the Russians are in a position to exercise what you might call"gas blackmail" -- and to a lesser extent oil blackmail -- because they know that in the long run they may well have Turks on their side rather against them. If they knew that Turkey was absolutely solidly integrated into Europe, as a strategic partner, then they would have to be much more open to European negotiations, because Russia needs Turkey as its route for the gas pipelines. But if Turkey is an uncertain territory, Russia has more cards in its hands....

The other thing, I suppose that has to be borne in mind - this is my third point -- is that the utter inability of the European Union to forge a foreign policy of its own - whether toward the Middle East or its attitude toward Afghanistan, toward, before Obama was elected, George Bush's policies, its attitude on Africa, its attitude on immigration, all of these things mean that -- certainly if I were running, God help me, Russian foreign policy, I would look at Europe and see countries waiting to be picked off, one by one.

There is no European foreign policy and therefore there is no united European position. That is why [Czech President] Vaclav Klaus is not only remarkably absurd in many of his stances, but utterly self-defeating because his desire -- together with [Polish President Lech] Kaczynski's desire -- to destroy the Lisbon Treaty [and] to destroy the possibility of some sort of united European political structure that could provide a foreign policy executive will in the end only benefit Russia. To some extent locally, it benefits [countries] like Israel, because there is a division on attitudes towards the Middle East; but the real beneficiary is Russia.

comments powered by Disqus