Quo vadis, Europa? A conversation with Quentin Peel.

By Francesc Badia i Dalmases, December 9, 2016

Protests in London against Brexit. 28 June, 2016. Ed Everett/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Protests in London against Brexit. 28 June, 2016. Ed Everett/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Quentin Peel is an associate fellow with the Europe Programme at Chatham House and former foreign affairs editor with the Financial Times.

Francesc Badia i Dalmases: Quentin, what is happening? We seem to be witnessing turmoil all around the world. There is popular rejection of the political status quo in almost every continent. Is this the end of the liberal world order?

Quentin Peel: I think it is less dramatic. When we had the global financial crisis in 2008 and later in 2010, the Eurozone crisis, at the time I remember thinking “Oh no, this is going to be terrible, when everyone retreats into nationalism and protectionism”. It didn’t quite happen then, but it’s happening now. We delayed this reaction, but we couldn’t stop it.

We saw a very similar reaction in the 1930s, with a dramatic recession and unemployment – and the reaction then was a return to nationalism. And of course, disaster, with the rise of fascism and Nazism. I do see some really worrying parallels.

But I think there are two things that differentiate the current crisis from the 1930s. One is that we are more aware of the danger, as a result of the 1930s experience. But the second is that it is much more complex this time around – and therefore a bigger challenge. It’s not just an economic downturn. There is the impact of ‘globalisation’ in its broadest sense – the free movement of goods, rising migration and advancing technology – as it opens up our borders and our world. And the enormous insecurity this has created.

When people are insecure, they look for simplistic solutions. And that’s what the people in the UK and America have grabbed, with Brexit and Trump – both right wing populist solutions. But also, in Europe, we can see the rise of left wing populism.

The one thing that is common to them all is the collapse of the centre ground – and that to me is deeply worrying, because we haven’t yet seen how we can recreate that centre ground.

Here I remember the words of W. B. Yeats ‘The Second Coming’, the centre cannot hold, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. And I fear we’re going through another period like that again.

FBD: And in the wake of Brexit, I think we can assume who the worst were, but where were the best and can we take any sense of optimism from the result?

QP: I think one of the positives in the UK was the age structure of the different sides. Younger voters were overwhelmingly on the side of remaining in the European Union – remaining open, pro-immigration. It’s very interesting because, for example, my generation – I was born in 1948 – voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. Old people who want to turn the clock back. To me, that’s absolutely the wrong answer.

One problem, far fewer of the younger generation went to vote. But the ones that did were voting in an open-minded way, and so from that point of view I don’t see Brexit as a fundamental reversal – it’s more a cry of pain from an older generation that is profoundly insecure. Even though the younger generation is also insecure. But they’re open-minded – and that’s the positive!

FBD: And this insecurity you’ve mentioned, where is it coming from? And where is sending us?

QP: Part of this insecurity is the inevitable shift of manufacturing jobs from the West to China, India, Latin America – and Africa too, eventually. And we should be so happy in Europe. It’s ironic – in the past, coal miners fought to keep their jobs, among the most physically dangerous, unhealthy around. Should we really fight to save these jobs? But of course, coal miners were wonderful people with tremendous esprit de corps, a real solidarity. So you have this ironic situation where we were fighting to keep dreadful jobs, when we should have been celebrating not having to do these lousy jobs anymore. But it was the whole European and American economic model – and at this moment, we’re in a complete state of flux.

So, there is Donald Trump – not one of the most brilliant or intelligent people – who has this simplistic view: “We’ll get out jobs back by keeping the Chinese and Mexican imports out”. And it’s utterly stupid… and that’s what is worrying. What’s being offered – whether it’s Trump or Brexit – is not the right answer for the people who feel most threatened.

Trump represents the worst of capitalism – he doesn’t pay his taxes, he cheats and lies, he’s a rip-off merchant, he’s into casinos. Similarly, Berlusconi in Italy – again the worst sort of capitalist. And again in Russia: there is no doubt in my mind that Putin and his cronies are part of a huge, corrupt system. But people are apparently happy to vote for him. And that’s what worries me – our answer to cleaning the system is voting for some of the dirtiest people around.

FBD: So, there is the economic impact of globalisation – this economic shift from the West to the East and resulting displacement and resentment. But is there more to this insecurity than just economics?

QP: Alongside these economic and political changes, perhaps you have the most fundamental changes of all – the technological. The world has so dramatically moved on from where we used to be. Technology has radically changed everything that we’ve been talking about so far: the economy and politics.

In the UK, the people who voted for Brexit were not necessarily ‘white working classes’ – it was broader. There was also a significant element of the middle classes, and even immigrant communities. It was the people who felt they had been overtaken by the economy and technology.

I’m convinced we’re seeing as dramatic a revolution as happened in the 15th century with the printing press, which destroyed the Christian church, created the grounds for the 30 years’ war and devastated Europe. If we’re not careful, out technology is going to take us down this route again.

FBD: You spent several years living in Russia. How does that country fit into all of this?

QP: Russia is a tragic story, but very much an uncompleted story. I left Russia in 1991, just before the coup against Gorbachev, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. But even as I left, I remember someone asking me “how long will it be before Russia is a ‘normal’ country?”, and I said “two generations”, and a minimum fifty years.

What is Putin? He is an absolute creature of Soviet rule. And so he’s totally a transitional figure.

Like Britain, you have this psychology of a country that never got used to the fact that it lost its empire – although unlike Britain, it was an empire right on its borders. This is an imperial psychology that is tough to get rid of. But it has to go… it is not the answer to the future.

But I think it’s going to be another 30 years, at least. It’s about building institutions that are open and transparent. Unlike central Europe, which has a brief moment of democracy between the two world wars, the tragedy is that there is no tradition of that in Russia.

FBD: And then we have Trump. Has democracy lost its fundamental appeal?

QP: Isn’t it dramatic that two countries that have seen, if you like, the first two populist revolutions are the two countries where the democratic tradition appeared to have been the strongest: the US and the UK? Both of them, at least, were very proud of their democratic tradition.

I would say that in Britain, the Brexit vote, is a populist coup d’état. It’s not a majority – 36% – but it is a dramatic coup d’état against liberal parliamentary democracy.

And even more dramatic, Donald Trump in America. This is an absolute rejection.

FBD: True. But, coming back to the European question and looking beyond Brexit – how is Europe faring in the face of these political, economic and technological changes in our societies?

QP: In Europe there are two separate trends. In Britain, the older generation never bought into the ‘peace project’ of Europe – they bought into Europe, the economic project. Totally pragmatic, and without idealism.

On the continent, certainly in Germany and France, the older generation are the good ones. They remember why we created the EU. It’s the younger generation who haven’t quite got that sense of history. They’re more conscious of the future globalised world – and therefore they are quite insecure. I see it with my own children – their generation will change jobs every five years. I worked for the same newspaper for forty years! It’s unimaginable these days.

What’s more, the populism in Poland and Hungary is very different from the sort of populism we’re seeing in Britain, France and the Netherlands. In the former Communist states, I think it’s more of a transitional process towards democracy. My argument about Eastern Europe is that if those countries were not in the European Union, imagine how much more dangerous that politics would be – threatening their neighbour states. Whereas within Europe, they want to stay because it’s good for them, and therefore there’s a limit on how badly they can behave.

But there were two things that had a big impact on the EU’s future: the reunification of Germany, and the ‘big bang’ enlargement. Suddenly, having always been this rather reticent big power, Germany became the pre-eminent power – at least economically – and at the same time, the champion of the ‘big bang’ enlargement’. It made the whole thing much more complicated, with lots of people and very different priorities.

So, I come back to the point that we mustn’t oversimplify what has happened.

FBD: And so, what solutions do you see for Europe, as a whole, in tackling the crisis it is facing?

QP: What we need to have is some very serious thinking in the centre-ground of politics – because the centre ground is where most people are. Let’s see the old parties start to splinter a bit, and we all need to get used to a system where we have 5 or 6 parties. And we should all have a system where we have the devolution of power. One of the great positives about the EU is in creating a European umbrella, it should allow more devolution. So, we should allow more independence in Catalonia and in Scotland, but integrated in a federal arrangement. I would be perfectly happy to see a more federal Britain in parts; a more federal Europe.

We don’t want over centralised nation-states. I’ve lived twice in my life in Germany, and I must say I think the German federal system is pretty successful. Clearly, the main power is in the capital, in Berlin, but none-the-less, Angela Merkel would say “I can never do anything without making sure that I’ve got not only the political parties on board, but also the federal states, but also my European partners”. So when, as a politician, you’ve constantly think about these levels: Europe, national and federal states – and then the local level – in a world where we have everything going global, it’s very important to have those strong local ties. And I think that’s an answer: stronger grass roots democracy, not trying to dominate the national, but build up from the local to the supra-national level.

The tragedy is my compatriots have said: we don’t want this European level. I think they are insane.

FBD: It seems to me that they have been inoculated again with the virus of nationalism, and the fear of loosing ground to a more diverse and cosmopolitan society, which they don’t understand, which they don’t buy. Finally, as a journalist, where do you feel the media has gone wrong and what do you think its role should be going forward?

QP: Yes, there is indeed the role of the media here. Its power has been hugely magnified by the internet and the arrival of social media has, in a way, rather successfully demonised what we keep calling the ‘political elite’. And I’m a journalist, I’m part of this political elite!

We in the media demonised ourselves. It’s a two-way process, but the politicians and the media are both part of having alienated people from the political process and having identified our mutual corruption. If the people are not doing better economically, and are seeing a political process where there is corruption – and see a financial process where there is massive profit – then there is a backlash.

It’s similar in the ‘think tank’ world. What’s its role? It’s certainly not to shut up. We’ve got to be producing good analysis, thoughtful and provocative, but also honest, thinking. Because on the internet there is so much awful mythology and garbage. Democracy doesn’t work unless you’ve got good information.

I always tell young journalists – the best sort of news is not information that makes people believe their own prejudices. Its information that makes people question their own prejudices. That’s the type of information we need. That’s where serious, independent media have their niche.


Quentin Peel is an associate fellow with the Europe Programme at Chatham House. He joined the Financial Times in 1975. Between 1976 and 1994, he served successively as Southern Africa correspondent, Africa editor, European Community correspondent and Brussels bureau chief, Moscow correspondent, and chief correspondent in Germany. He was also foreign editor and international affairs editor from 1994 until 2010, and finally chief correspondent in Berlin until 2013.

Article courtesy of Open Democracy


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