The trauma of watching Europe’s promise fade

When Adam Holm asked some of Europe's biggest thinkers how they viewed the state of Europe, he was shocked by their pessimism. But the journalist and historian is also struggling to reconcile whether his dream of a free and inclusive Europe is possible without more control over who is allowed to call the continent home

Adam Holm is self-conscious about smiling because he’s missing a tooth and doesn’t have the 28,000 kroner he needs to replace it. He lost it to an elbow in the face while playing football, and as he poses for photos of his shaved head, stocky build and muscular jaw, I catch myself thinking that the historian and journalist could easily pass for a hooligan.

But he’s a hooligan who wrote a PhD on the rise of right-wing populism in the interwar period. A Dane with a Jewish father and an atheist mother. A social-minded internationalist who still identifies with his upbringing in a left-wing commune. Who ruffled feathers with controversial op-eds mocking religious sentiment and condemning Danish coverage of the Gaza war when he was host of the flagship debate programme Deadline on DR2. Who resigned not long after being reprimanded for briefly showing the infamous cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed live on air.

But while religion, free speech and the Middle East were his central preoccupations in the past, he has turned his attention to Europe with his latest book, Endestation Europa (Last Stop for Europe), a collection of interviews with ten prominent historians, writers and journalists from nine European countries. All are concerned about the continent’s future.

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“My book is very pessimistic, and I didn’t mean for it to be. It’s an almost apocalyptic vision that unfolds through the chapters. I was a bit amazed to see how negatively they view the current situation. Many bring up the spectre of the 30s, the interwar period. I believe there is a feeling, not just among the literati, that Europe is heading in a new direction – but no one knows where we are going.”

Fading optimism
At 47, Holm is only a little older than his youngest interviewee, 40-year-old Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen. The eldest, at 72, is Daniel Cohn-Bendit, an MEP from France and co-president of the Greens/Free European Alliance Group in the European Parliament. They all remember a Europe before the Iron Curtain came down and Germany was reunified, when European cooperation promised wealth, peace and happiness.

But the events of the past decade have disrupted this vision.

“We came out of the Cold War, and there was a sense of optimism. The wall came down, the Eastern bloc melted away, Francis Fukayama talked about ‘the end of history’. I remember that period – I thought we had fought all the necessary wars and that all the conflicts were now behind us. In the 1990s, nobody would have predicted that religion would now be an issue, that ethnicity would still be an issue,” he says.

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Holm’s book isn’t supposed to be a comprehensive analysis of the state of Europe. It’s a bellwether – a sampling of the zeitgeist – by European intellectuals about the present state and future prospects of the continent.

They regard the conflicts that the EU now faces as evidence that its original vision has not been fulfilled, and that the Europe of the future might not be what they had hoped for or imagined.

Adam Holm. Photo: Peter Stanners

And there are many conflicts that concern Holm’s interview subjects – the clash of ethnicity and religion, the refugee crisis, the identity crisis that provoked Brexit, the political situations in Turkey and Ukraine, and the ongoing social tensions in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

“The vision of the 90s, of a collected, united Europe growing ever stronger, is crumbling. Europe has come to an end, at least the Europe we knew. Sure, the continent will always be here, and things aren’t as bad as during the interwar period, and we’ve still accomplished an enormous amount after 70 years of developing democratic institutions and free speech. I’m not saying we are approaching a new Auschwitz, but we are coming to the end of the Europe we thought would exist after the enlargement in 2003. We are at a crossroads, and I think the book reflects that.”

A leadership crisis
For Holm and his interview subjects, the European project started to waver following the EU’s expansion into Eastern Europe in the early 2000s. But it was the combination of the financial crisis and an unfair refugee system that has most weakened the project. For while Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal struggled to recover from their spiralling debt obligations, they were also made to care for the vast majority of refugee arrivals.

Efforts to distribute refugees across Europe more fairly have so far failed, with EU member states arguing that strengthening Europe’s outer borders is a higher priority than simply redistributing those who arrive. But despite the reinforcement of the EU border agency Frontex and a €20 billion deal with Turkey, the refugees continue to come.

For some, the EU’s collective inability to effectively tackle the economic and refugee crises reflects a leadership vacuum.

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“I agree with Anthony Beevor when he says that [European Commission chairman Jean-Claude] Juncker is a bloody fool. He’s got no sensitivity. He’s the agent promoting the idea that the Euro is not in a serious crisis, that it’s simply technical and not structural errors that need to be addressed. He’s ignoring the disenchantment in vast parts of Europe,” says Holm.

The growing split between Germany and France is also undermining European unity, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel increasingly being called upon to fill Europe’s leadership void single-handedly. But she too is seen as out of touch.

“It was incredibly unpopular when she opened the country to refugees and migrants, and she ultimately had to backtrack. But it was too late, and it was used by all Europe’s populist parties who could point to her and say, ‘Look, she’s not paying attention. Our countries cannot handle so many new arrivals with a different religious background and without skills for the labour market’.”

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So Europe is not necessarily lacking leadership, but the right type of leadership. What Holm’s interviewees have in common is that they regard the rise of ethno-nationalist and populist parties across Europe as a dangerous development for Europe. And for Holm and others, the root cause of the rise of these parties is that immigration concerns were not taken seriously.

But if the wrong leadership for a united Europe is the type that calls for open borders regardless of the consequences, is the right leadership one that says Europe’s borders are open to the world’s oppressed, victimised and disenfranchised?

“If there weren’t a migration crisis, we wouldn’t have seen Brexit, we wouldn’t have seen Hungary or Poland threaten to leave the EU. We wouldn’t have seen [Dutch populist MP] Geert Wilders coming so close to winning power in the recent election. We wouldn’t have the new far-right party New Conservatives in Denmark if it weren’t for the Syrian crisis.”

Migration realism
The rise of ethno-nationalist and populist parties across Europe has been a challenge mainly to Social Democrat parties, which have responded by sharpening their own rhetoric on immigration. This is certainly the case in Denmark, where Socialdemokratiet have voted for all of the immigration restrictions proposed by the right-wing coalition government over the past two years. Their message is clear: the difference between a left and right-wing government is not immigration.

But for Holm, it’s telling that populism has been especially strong in the Scandinavian countries over the past two decades.

“We are among the most egalitarian countries on the continent, so why did these parties gain ground here?” he asks, pointing to the rise of the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) and Norway’s Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet).

Adam Holm. Photo: Peter Stanners

“I think this is about ethnicity and identity and a sense of giving away benefits – something that has been hard-earned. If immigrants came and supported themselves and didn’t draw on social welfare, I’m quite sure Danes would say it’s OK. But it’s obvious from the statistics that this is not the case, so the Danes say, ‘Hey, come on, we earned these rights, we are entitled to the benefits, not you’. It’s not about being rich enough to let people in. It’s not so much racism or xenophobia, even though that plays a part. In Denmark, it’s an idea of social justice.”

Holm appears uncomfortable saying this, however, and quickly qualifies the remarks by insisting that he is not a supporter or ally of the Danish People’s Party (DF). It’s not surprising. While the party is now the second-largest in Parliament, it is vilified by the left wing for its brazen nativist and anti-immigration stance.

But despite his aversion for DF as a political party, he doesn’t believe their voters are driven by racism, but rather protecting the social contract – a sense of building and owning a system that can only be shared by those who are willing to put in the effort to maintain it.

“I believe in multi-ethnic societies and open borders. Of course I do. On the other hand, it’s something of exclusive pleasure for the likes of us. What about the working classes, who find it very hard to make ends meet? They don’t like people coming up here and taking a job for less than the minimum wage, and I understand why.”

He brings up an interview with American economist Jeffrey Sachs, who argued that Europe cannot maintain an open door immigration policy given the rapidly increasing populations in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Where will they seek a future to escape conflict and poverty? They will head north. Despite the short-lived Arab Spring, the region is now in winter. The situation in Syria is terrible, people have no hope whatever. It’s not much better in Jordan or Egypt. So millions more refugees arrive, and withholding benefits for them would simply create a new underclass. But paying them benefits would lead to a fiscal crisis.”

Holm would prefer that Europe invest more heavily in helping refugees closer to the conflict, as well as play a more active political and diplomatic role in pushing for stability. But he has watched as internal divisions within the EU have undermined its ability to cobble together a meaningful and coherent foreign policy. This inaction has been seized on by populists, who see their chance to change Europe’s priorities from inclusive and internationalist to withdrawn and nationalistic.

And they have ammunition – the political elite has ignored legitimate concerns about the social and cultural impact of immigration.

“It’s hard for me to say, because I was born and raised in a different era and tradition. I am not a follower of DF’s ideas, but a long time ago they realised that ethnicity and culture would become a primary political focus. I’m not blaming them – I am more having a go at the people I identify with, that they didn’t realise the effects of increasing immigration at an earlier stage. In the 70s, there were one million Muslims in Europe. Now it’s nearing 28 million. I’m not afraid of them – I have travelled a lot in the Middle East – but the problems associated with the arrival of non-Europeans….” he trails off.

“My point is hard to explain, because it’s coming from a great deal of confusion. I think that’s my point really, and maybe that, again, going back to the book, there’s a lot of confusion because people like myself have lost their natural position. Ideally speaking, I know what I want and what my values are, but they clash. Just look at Stockholm – it gets all the more difficult to stand up and make a staunch defence of multiculturalism.”

Heed the disenchanted
Holm apologises several times during the interview. As an interviewer, he likes his subjects to have clear answers, but when it comes to the EU, those are in short supply.

“My interview subjects and I are confused, and it’s borne out of having one position, having a strong footing somewhere, and then realising you are standing on a landslide, and you start losing ground. That’s where they are, and that’s where I am. Young people might not be as sceptical, because all they know is a more or less borderless Europe. I, and the people I talked to, grew up in the wake of the Second World War, so we are marked by that history. We carry it on our shoulders,” he says.

“That’s why I use the landslide metaphor, because the Europe they saw in the making, and hoped was in the making, is not there. Some are pro-federalist, but we aren’t going to see a federalist state.”

Despite its accomplishments, the promise of the EU doesn’t burn as brightly as it once did. But is the union actually failing, or are we merely witnessing a psychological fatigue in the project? Has the EU only failed because we expected so much more from it? And has the distance between its real accomplishments and its ambitions opened up a space where populists can thrive to such a degree that the project is now at risk?

“If you asked the various peoples of Europe whether they would rather go back to a period of unrest and warfare, or retain political stability and unity, I think most would choose the latter. But some would say they don’t see much unity. They feel more and more alienated from the political process and experience less genuine democracy. The EU machinery is no longer seen as an engine creating peace and stability, perhaps even the opposite.”

The problem with this analysis is that the EU has never been more democratic. The 2009 Lisbon Treaty gave more weight to regional and local power, and boosted the powers of the European Parliament in the legislative process. Still, after years of steady support for the EU, the British people suddenly voted to leave last year.

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Perhaps, then, the biggest crisis facing Europe is a psychological one, born out of a lack of faith in the project despite its many accomplishments. And as Europe now faces a number of difficult and concrete challenges, the question is whether without that faith, it will survive.

“I think we need to heed the call of the disenchanted, and there seems to be great disenchantment in certain European countries. Obviously, as a supporter of the EU, I can take heart in Geert Wilders’ not having a terrific election. But we still have to pay attention to the fact that there is a movement of protest around Europe. Is it because people don’t have anything better

to do? Obviously not. It’s because of open borders,” he says, before pausing and shaking his head.

“Now I just sound like a populist.” M

The May 2017 issue of The Murmur with historian Adam Holm on the cover.


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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