Austrian poet, novelist, essayist, and translator Dr. Robert Menasse has won numerous awards in many countries for his journalistic work on issues of culture, political essays, and books. People in Germany show great respect for him and interest in his ideas. Therefore, he was invited to give a speech “Countdown to Europe” at the opening ceremony of the International Conference the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium titled “What kind of Europe? Learning from the Crisis” in Potsdam. The same day Sueddeutsche Zeitung published Menasses’ article with the same headline. The Day’s correspondent took the opportunity to interview Dr. Menasse during the conference.
You have told that the European project does not have any future without introducing post-national democracy in Europe. Do you really believe that Europe does not have a future without introducing post-national democracy?
“We have to invent a completely new form of democracy and democratic legitimation. Why? The European project started with an idea of overcoming nationalism. Nationalism was the reason for the wars, conflicts, problems in European history. Nationalism led to two world wars and to Auschwitz. After that, the decision was ‘let’s overcome nationalism.’ The idea was to bring European nations into a kind of interdependence, so no individual nation can any longer impose its national interests over the others, and minimize the conflict potential. This was the idea, and step by step this was done, and now we have the form of the European Union the way we know it today. And the problem is, to unify the continent, to unify European nations, the governments of the nations have to come together – because they were elected, and they have democratic legitimation. And now they are sitting together, with this meltdown in Europe’s economy, and the governments of different nations in this institution, the European Council, have to make now further European politics. But what are they doing? They are defending their national interests, they are doing something contrary to what the [original] idea was. And why do they do so? Because they are elected in their nations, and they have to explain things to their populations… They can only get reelected when they explain to their populations that they have been acting in the interests of their nations.
“So when we have a European problem today, what is the result? The problem is automatically seen by the governments of different nations as the problem of one nation, in this case Greece. At the same time they have to explain to their voters how they will defend costs for them. What are the costs for the German nation in case of the problem with Greece? However, in reality we have a European problem, and we need a European solution. But as long as governments are elected in their nations, we have a system of defending national interests. And therefore I say we need another form of democracy. National democracy was the product of the 19th century to organize national states. But we don’t have national states any longer because 80-85 percent of national sovereignty is given over to Brussels. So we don’t have those classical nations any longer, and for this we have to invent another form of democracy, of democratic legitimation in Europe. And we should discuss how this new democracy can be organized, into which institutions, and what system of voting it should have, and so on, and so forth. The most important thing is to start the discussion.”
So, you don’t see this start? Can you see any European politicians supporting and sharing your ideas?
“Intellectuals do, philosophers do, a lot of public servants, working at the European Commission, for example, and thinking European way – they do as well. But political elites don’t, because the national card is their life security, politically. And this is very interesting, because they know that if they want to be reelected, they have to communicate only with their national electorate. But a lot of people, and I as well, obviously try to initiate the discussion to say that we have to invent new national democracy, and we can imagine that we can start with the Lisbon Agreement, where Europe of the regions is described, and the subsidiarity principle, so I can imagine a common Europe, in which a European government, elected by the European Parliament, produces basic decisions for all together, and inside these basics every region has its democratic structure where people understand the things, they know where they are living, they understand the problems of their homeplace. For example, in a region in Poland everyone knows the problems of their region, but they don’t understand the problems of another region in Poland, but they think they have to give their vote for all Poland. But at the same time it’s against Europe, and Poland is a member of the European Union. This is a contradiction. So, a Europe of regions, organized in a new, democratic, post-nationalist way, could be a future – but we have to discuss it.”
What about Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, and Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission? Do they share such views?
“Van Rompuy is a scandal. He was invented – his post is an invention of the European governments, the governments of member states, because they didn’t want a strong president of the European Commission. The European Commission is a supranational institution, and the Commission is thinking in a general European way. The governments of the member states wanted to break its power, or prevent an increase of its power, to save their own legitimacy. So they ‘invented’ a President of the European Council, to confuse the system and say, ‘Hey, who is the president of the European Union? Is this the President of the European Commission, or the President of the European Council, or the President of the Parliament?’ So, the problem was to make the Council stronger and give it its own president, in concurrence to the president of the European Commission. This was a scandal, this was a flashback, this was a relapse. We have to overcome this as well.”
There is an ongoing discussion in Europe, whereby some support the principle of federalism, while others reject it. Can you sense any progress in the direction towards the federalization of Europe?
“I think, for the beginning every idea is good, which is not based on the idea of national identity and national interests. I can’t imagine one person – let’s say, German, Hungarian, Polish, or Austrian, or Portuguese – who is able to explain what his privileged national interests could be. Every interest of every person is the same: based on human rights, and so on. You have the same interests as me, in the sense of the basics of the organization of our life. Justice, freedom, human rights, chances, and so on. National interests – it’s a fiction. This fiction is the product of the system in which only nations and national vote give legitimation. One clear example: when Ms. Merkel makes a European political decision, every German finds it correct, because Germans voted for her, and elected her. But 26 of 27 states did not elect her, right? And here is the lack of democratic legitimation. So we don’t need nationally elected politicians.”
Do you think that the system of qualitative voting will help this in some way to build this post-national democracy? I mean, this system of quantitative voting. There are a lot of questions which are put to vote in Europe – and the vote is based on majority, not on consensus.
“We do not need all these discussions if we finally understand that we do not need a union of national governments. It is a problem when they need to come to a unified decision, but at the same time it’s a problem when they have to make a majority decision, because the most economically powerful countries win against the smaller countries. This is not the idea of the European Union.”
Do you know what “sovereign democracy” means?
“No, what is it?”
Sovereign democracy is a notion devised by the Russian ideologist Surkov several years ago. What do you think of it?
“I do not think this could really be a model of the future of Europe.”
Why even in Germany, which has a strong denazification policy, are there nationalistic parties? They are small, and they are not in the parliament, but who knows, in the future? Why are there nationalistic or neo-fascist parties in Germany, in the Netherlands, True Finns in Finland, Golden Dawn in Greece? Why does it happen?
“People see that their national governments cannot resolve certain problems. At the same time, they are not well-enough informed about the complexity of the problems. So they are ready to consume easy solutions. And that’s the hour of the right nationalists. But it is even more complicated. For example, in the Netherlands, it was the Socialist Party that falls back into nationalism now. And on the other hand, in Austria it was the big conservative bourgeois party, which is economically interested in Europe, politically, it falls back into nationalism. The leader of the conservative party says, ‘We have to throw Greece out of the Union.’ Why does he say this? He says this because he read the results of opinion research, and he wants to save his political life by being populistic. It is dangerous.”
What do you think about Ukraine? Have you read an article by a certain British journalist Lancelot Lowton, who in 1935 made a report in the British Parliament on the Ukrainian question, and later, in 1939, wrote an article Ukraine: Europe’s Greatest Problem? These two articles were connected with the Holodomor, Lowton knew about the Holodomor, while Europe in those times did not speak of the Holodomor – maybe, in order not to vex Stalin.
“I’m not an expert on the history of Ukraine. What I can see, and what I can say, is this. Ukraine is a big country, with a lot of chances and possibilities, and has a very difficult and painful history. The European Union is making a big error, a big mistake in relation to Ukraine. The European Union says, ‘Make order, reorganize your nation, and then we will see what we do with you,’ instead of helping Ukraine to become fit for the post-national system of the European Union. So, what the European Union is doing, is saying to Ukraine, ‘Go this way.’ It’s a wrong way, because first you have to organize yourself as a nation. And then, instead of saying ‘We, the European Union, are working on post-national development, and let’s see how we can make you fit for this way,’ they are sending you on the wrong way. And you can’t resolve all problems with money. The European Union is sending money, yeah? So the top leadership of the European Union has a very clean conscience, as they say, ‘Oh, we are sending money, we are helping.’ But you can’t buy everything, can you? And you must help as well with ideas, with cultural exchange, with political discussion, and with the simplest thing which is the basis of everything in the world: trying to learn and understand the other.
“When I see a beautiful, interesting woman, the first thing is that I want to know more about her. And I have to start a conversation. I can’t say to a friend, ‘Please bring this girl over to that place, and so on, and let’s see what happens.’ No, you have to have a conversation, an exchange. Ukraine is a beautiful country, with a painful history, yet beautiful. And this is a country with a lot of possibilities and chances. Yet it is politically left in isolation. And solidarity happens only in the sense of political opportunity. And it’s a lie, when the public are discussing political processes which are not, let’s say, very ‘clean’ in the sense of rights. They say, ‘We criticize that, and we express our solidarity with that.’ They don’t ask about the political position of this particular person. So it’s very personalized, it’s distanced, it’s not very interested, there’s no exchange…”
Where is this happening? Where is there no such understanding? Merkel refuses to meet with Yanukovych, for many years. They might discuss something, she could make some kind of explanations… Is it because Europe lacks visionaries?
“Yes, it’s a lack of visionaries. The founding fathers of the European Union had visions. And you can say, ‘Okay, visions, visions…’ But they show that you can make them reality, step by step. And today we have such political elites that are going back, step by step, without visions.”
So, is there no hope for Europe and for Ukraine? Or can you see some hope, a light in the tunnel?
“I see the main hope in the next generation. There is a new generation growing up, two generations already, who do not remember their national currencies, borders, and they see the chances they have, and they want more. We say so easily that we can go step by step. But the fact is also, that we have to go generation by generation.”