At the BASEES conference on Saturday and Sunday in Cambridge, the opening address was given by the Bulgarian intellectual and foreign policy theorist, Ivan Krastev. Krastev presented a fascinating theory about what is currently happening in Europe in terms of both politics and economics. And he drew striking parallels with what happened in Eastern Europe following the end of socialism there.
He began by stating that some years ago the aim of EU policy makers was how to make Bulgaria more like Greece, whereas now it was how to make Greece more like Bulgaria. He asked how universal is the Eastern European experience and why, for example, there had been protests against austerity in Latin America but not in Eastern Europe in the 90s. The question now was could Poland be transplanted to Spain or Italy?
His explanations for this were several. Eastern Europe post 1989 had held a radical consensus about the need to abolish the welfare state established under the Communist regimes. There had also been the almost total absence of a radical discourse to attack the reforms. Because of a history of corruption under Communist rule, EU institutions were more trusted than national ones.Brussels was regarded as an ally to control national elites. Elections became about personalities and not policies and produced inherently unstable governments - Bulgaria was an example where virtually every post-Communist government had been replaced in subsequent elections and extra parliamentary parties gained seats. The old regime, the Communists, were regarded as having had nothing to contribute to the debate and thus the 'transition' was regarded as everything.
The austerity state, first in Eastern Europe and now in Southern Europe was based on the concept of 'no alternative'. There was now a clear attempt to roll out the Eastern European model across Southern Europe. The main losers in Eastern Europe post 1989 were the old, but in Southern Europe it was the young. An interesting example he gave of this was when in the 90s, two Bulgarian economists had said that the transition period was over. They were roundly attacked in Bulgaria as the people were not prepared to accept this, and thought that there must be more to the reforms than what they saw. In Southern Europe, civil society was far stronger and there would be much stronger resistance to the implementation of the Eastern European post-Communist model.
He told an Eastern European joke from the early 20th century to illustrate his point. Two trains were underway, one from Paris to Moscow and the other from Moscow to Paris. They both met in Warsaw and each was certain that they had reached their destination.
A fascinating historical and political question was to compare the discourse around the fate of the Soviet Union with that of the Eurozone. In 1985 the collapse of the USSR was considered "unthinkable" but by 1995 was considered "inevitable". He compared the USSR and the Eurozone as both ideological projects in search of reality.
The real problem in contemporary Europe was that electorates could change their governments but not their policies. This move away from economic debate in politics would lead to a rise in identity politics and this was already visible. This was what Krastev termed "the rise of the demographic imagination". This he described as shrinking majorities, e.g. the old, or white Europeans etc, feeling that they are becoming the minorities. This would be a major feature of European politics. There was a deep seated feeling in Europe that the future had disappeared and that its people were living in an eternal present. The Far Right would not really benefit from this as the main uncertainty in Europe was cultural, rather than economic, but it would profoundly affect mainstream parties and move them to the Right.
I think that Krastev's analysis is very interesting and worth further study. Certainly it would seem that Europe's elite, hand in gloves with its bankers, wants to impose what they consider the successful Eastern European model on the rest of Europe, beginning with its periphery.
A sad footnote to this was the documentary 'My Perestroika' by the US film maker, Robin Hessman, set in Moscow among a group of school friends and illustrating the disillusionment which quickly set in following the collapse of the USSR in 1991.