Geert Mak: ‘Fear is our biggest enemy’

‘In 2004, there was barely any debate concerning Europe, outside of the EU-bubble. Today, because of all the misery and crises, we are agitatedly shouting at each other. However, we do that as Europeans. This means a European debate is trending’, Geert Mak says.

  • © Jan De Zutter Gie Goris and Geert Mak talking about Europe, Migration and Identity. © Jan De Zutter

Geert Mak, the author of In Europa. Travels Through the Twentieth Century among others, is still Mister Europe. That became clear when a conference on Europe, Migration and Identity was announced tot take place in Antwerp: in only two days all 1300 seats were filled. During the interview with MO*, Mak reflects upon the future of the threatened Union. 

Just when the camera is turned off, he remembers the one thing he definitely should have said: European policy suffers from the individualization of everything that goes wrong. ‘Your country and city are bombed, but you still have to prove that you have fled for legitimate reasons as an individual. The economy collapses, but as an unemployed person you are on your own, society does no longer consider that to be it’s moral problem. Thát is what threatens Europe, more than the influx of refugees and immigrants.’

Everything that did get recorded, can be read below.

A recent article on the MO* website titled: Fear the fear, not the terrorists.

Geert Mak: This comes straight from my heart. This is the only right attitude. It reminds me of the British attitude when London was bombed. They held on by simply going strong. Fear is the biggest enemy in many situations. It’s paralyzing, leads to many irrational decisions and panic, and almost never solves anything.

‘Fear is the biggest enemy in many situations.’

The roaring streets or loud social media react toward your statement with the argument that you, as a part of the elite, can discuss this matter quite easily. And that the changes that originate at the bottom of society resonate much louder. Shouldn’t the voice from the streets be heard, then?

Geert Mak: That voice from the street is a romanticized concept. In The Netherlands, many of those big-mouthed people live in Volendam, a place where -by a figure of speech- only two Moroccans live and they are respectable members of the middle class.

I have lived in one of the roughest neighborhoods of Amsterdam for twenty years, and my neighbors and I have always lived by a certain motto: we do see problems, but we won’t let them drive us crazy. Stay sober.

That sounds very Dutch… at least until Fortuyn. From him on, the Netherlands became the leading country for something that has evolved into right-wing nationalism that cultivates fear.

Geert Mak: To start, one has to realize that Wilders and Fortuyn are quite different people. And, yes, Wilders and his coterie do raise a lot of commotion, but, on the other hand, the Netherlands still have more volunteers to care for refugees than there are refugees to care for. The mayors -from every side of the political spectrum- are doing a great job. There are initiatives to help everywhere. There is -maybe a less vocal, but a certainly active- counter movement against Wilders’ nihilistic ideology.

The Netherlands used to have a solid concrete layer on top of its problems concerning migration. Talking about that was not done. The Second World War has something to do with that, and the consecutive ambition to never let racism in again. It even led to the point where someone who wanted to address the migration problems was quickly labeled as racist.

Since the end of the nineties, there have been fierce debates. Except for Wilders, people have found greater balance in dealing with these problems since then. Moroccans, Turks and other migrants have become much more vocal and people have started to see more nuance. However, at the same time, Wilders gathers people who are unhappy with so many other policies. Many people who are lost because of socio-economic reasons hope to find in Wilders the leader they need to get them out of their economic misery.

The discussion about refugees is clouded by many other things, for example, the real problems that poor people have with their housing. This is not the result of the influx of refugees but is actually the result of the policies of the past years. But refugees make great scapegoats, and this is something Wilders stimulates enormously.

Is the gap between people with and without future the reason that admission for refugees is becoming a more difficult issue to sell to the public?

Geert Mak: In The Netherlands, many of the problems concerning refugees are predictable. When you open an asylum center for 2000 people in a village of just 500 residents, there will certainly be some tension according to the laws of sociology.   

The whole discussion on integration has partly become obsolete since diversity has become an undeniable fact. You don’t see any multicultural drama when you walk through Amsterdam’s public library, but instead, you see a well-functioning, and in all shapes and forms, colored society. Just like in London. We live in a global city with a great dynamic where there are several problems -in particular with young Moroccans- but where integration is well-accomplished. The influx of refugees raises new questions, but I do not have the feeling that the citizens in the Netherlands are panicked about that.

The Netherlands do support several movements in Europe who want to end Angela Merkel’s Wir Schaffen Das-policy.

Geert Mak: The Netherlands do pursue that moderate policy, yes. However, the Netherlands are quite hypocritical in implementing that policy since it lets its refugees wait much longer than needed. At the same time, the arrival of 50.000 new people in just a few months time does cause problems. Even God would be facing problems in that case.

Merkel’s Wir Schaffen Das was a symbol of self-confidence. Her attitude was fantastic from a moral perspective. However, I believe she has made a mistake concerning two aspects. One, the globalization: her declaration was heard around the world, which brought on a whole new stream of people. Second, Europe’s irritation with Germany’s all-determining power: countries did not want to act on behalf of her order when they weren’t presented with even the slightest consultation. 

The idea of an unlimited influx is utopian. In this issue, I find borders to be of importance, but one must understand that they can never be sealed off completely. The question, therefore, is how to deal with these borders- and that is an issue I am open minded about. Wir Schaffen Das had an infinite vibe, and in Europe, just that infiniteness served as a source of fear and as a breeding ground for populism.

We believe borders to be important when people want to enter Europe, but not when Europe is one of the main leaders of neoliberal globalization or when military action is undertaken between NAVO-allies to bomb in Libia, Afghanistan or Iraq.

Geert Mak: Europe’s problem is its limited vision: it does not recognize its enormous power and its own geopolitical role. A power such as Europe will never operate alone within its borders, but no country will. It only depends on how one manages those overruns.

But not all countries bomb elsewhere…

Geert Mak: And concerning immigration, there most definitely is a line there. You can see this in Sweden that has always pursued a very generous policy. However, at one point, that just stops. There is a point when a society’s absorption capacities are all used and social cohesion can no longer be upheld in reasonable conditions. Then you risk that the model that everyone wants to achieve is no longer a viable option.

‘Europe can certainly take 10 million immigrants when it has around 470 million inhabitants.’

I do feel that people are very panicked and are crying for a collapse way too soon. Europe can certainly take 10 million immigrants when it has around 470 million inhabitants. But of course, they need to be distributed.

You mentioned the importance of social cohesion. This raises the question about which shared identity we are creating and its threathening consequences. Is social cohension not threathened much more by the growing gap between poor and rich, than between the influx of refugees?

Geert Mak: Amsterdam’s identity ís immigration. The question is how that immigrational and tolerant character of the city is upheld. Tolerance should not suffer because of its own tolerance. This debate is part of a modern and big city. Finding a balance is a never-ending job; it is a never-ending discussion. After the killings of Jews, Warsaw became a very monocultural city. That is why it never became a world city. Istanbul was a vivid world city at the end of the nineteenth century but was beaten down in the twentieth century. However, that is beginning to stir up again.

Is the present-day instability the consequence of the neoliberal, new capitalism? Probably it is. However, I find that it produces a certain smothering uniformity. People do certainly feel much more insecure as a result of this, and it is moreover one of the European Union’s key problems, independent from the structural mistakes that are being made already from the fifties.

Until the eighties, the European Union functioned as a regulator for capital and protector for every citizen and everything small. After that, the Union went on to facilitate and promote neoliberal capitalism. By doing this, it has made its citizens vulnerable. This is the actual center of the populist resistance. Even politicians are no longer in control, something the populist movement is very much aware off.

Which is something those politicians have created themselves. When the European project is threatened to fail, is it the responsibility of the political parties of the centre who have given away their own power in favor of the economic actors?

Geert Mak: Definitely! After the banking crisis, dozens of banks were saved with billions of taxpayer’s money. In turn, the banks should have been reformed. However, the banking sector has been able to escape such reforms with great success. Therefore, such a crisis might just happen again. And the same is happening with the emission scandal in the car industry.

On that note, the capitalist Americans are way ahead on consumer protection. Whoever scams their consumers in the US will be prosecuted. Something which hasn’t happened yet in Europe and the auto lobbyists have moreover succeeded in keeping the false norms around until far into the new decade. That is far more undermining for the European Union’s authority than a hundred of Wilder’s speeches.

You are probably too optimistic concerning the United States. I think no more than two people were sentenced after the banking crisis, despite the involvement of thousands in a game that has brought on a worldwide crisis and caused hundreds of thousand of deaths in the world as a consequence.

Geert Mak: They do have managed their banks in a better way. Slightly better way.

Do we need greater political control on the monetary policy of Europe, and in specific on the European Central Bank?

Geert Mak: What Draghi (the president of the ECB) is doing, follows a particular political line. He begs for inflation, something that is in favor of the Southern countries -who have to be supported, but who can still proceed with miserable borrowings, shady banks, etc. The problem lays in the fact that the European Union has not wanted or has been able to discuss this matter, so Draghi has to try to clean it up.

The most recent measure (the implementation of the zero-percent interest) shows a desperate act because setting the interest at zero brings complete panic with it. At the same time, he begs the governments to pursue a real policy, to stimulate the economy and to make an end to the austerity policy.

The euro has been a monstrosity since its start because it combines economies that are in different phases, have different structures, different cultures and traditions. The euro is a cage, a poison that can break up Europe more than the refugee crisis can- heaven forbid.

‘A European democracy will always be complicated. Always.’

The euro has split Europe in North and South, and the refugee crisis in West and East. Instead of an ever closer union, we are left with pieces of Europe that seem to drift further and further away from each other.

Geert Mak: Europe has to thrive again. The European Project should be reinvented.

Like Yanis Varoufakis says: Europe has to be redemocratized.

Geert Mak: Yes, however, Varoufakis and I strongly differ in many ways. To him, the only thing that matters is the democratic decision that is made by the Greek nation and not the democratic decisions of others. That is misleading. When the Germans don’t feel like paying for the Greeks anymore at a certain point, that might not be kind or right, but it is also democratic.

A European democracy will always be complicated. Always.

Because we can’t get rid of the nation states?

Geert Mak: Yes, but also because we have different interests at heart. When Draghi lowers the interest rates, the Slovenians and retired people in The Netherlands and Germany will pay too. The Greek conflict was essentially a conflict between democracies.

It was also a failure of Europe as a (democratic) space, because everyone kept on reasoning in national terms whilst the euro put the problem on a European level.

Geert Mak: That’s why Europe needs to be democratized in a different manner, in a direct manner. In order to do that, a limited federal form is needed, which can be heavily limited further in order to surpass the national constructions.

There are many matters in Europe that ought to stay with the national states. But refugees, capital flows, immigration, energy, climate change.. are all matters that can only be dealt with in a communal way. Let us restructure Europe in that fashion, and let us legitimize it democratically. I even believe that a few eurosceptics can be motivated for this, since even they believe certain matters have to be done together.

Since the economic crisis, the refugee crisis and the terror crisis, there has barely been any debate on climate change and the transition that is needed- on a much larger scale than your refoundation of the EU.

Geert Mak: That is because of all those structural mistakes in the EU that continually shift the attention toward other matters. Because of the preoccupation of the European leaders with the euro crisis, the growing refugee problems have been ignored. 

We have Schengen, but we have not developed a communal migration policy. You can see this in Europe the whole time: something technical is devised -because that does can create consensus- but the political debate is absent. It is avoided or does not conclude because there is no existing structure for it. I do share Varoufakis’s opinion on this: the European democratic culture has to be developed more thoroughly.

I am not being pessimistic. When I wrote In Europa in 2004, there was barely any debate between civilians. Today, because of all the misery and crises, we are agitatedly shouting at each other. However interestingly, we do this as Europeans. This means a European political debate is trending.

‘We are transitioning from a Eurocentric, Atlantic, twentieth-century world order to something entirely new and multipolar.’

Do you believe that Europe will emerge from this perfect storm with a better understanding of its role in the world? China, India, everyone waits for the EU, but it does not live up to the expectations because it is only concerned with itself.

Geert Mak: Exactly, and that’s the big problem. We are transitioning from a Eurocentric, Atlantic, twentieth-century world order to something entirely new and multipolar. Europe has figured in the center of the world order for five hundred years, that’s ending. The only political project that Europe has for itself is this Union. This is becoming dramatic. Only when these crises are overcome, will Europe has the energy to concern itself with that future world order. 

But the Commission invests all it’s energy and credibility in rescuing the Atlantic order, by using all it can muster to conclude a new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the USA (TTIP), instead of preparing for the multipolar order that the twenty-first century very much needs.

Geert Mak: I am truly concerned about this (TTIP-)treaty and I believe your statement is correct, but I have the feeling that all energy nowadays goes to saving the ship. The phase that Europe is in now, is very dangerous. It can go well, but the Union can also collapse.

What you see now are not so many crises, but symptoms of the non-functioning of a system.

The soft power of Europe was always based on human rights, democracy,… In which way do we redefine those norms and values in concordance with Europe’s new structure?

Geert Mak: Europe has functioned long on what social scientists call output legitimation: welfare, peace, everyone benefited. But that has weakened very much. And the input legitimation -elections, for example- is not that strong.

At the same time: when the greatest dream of hundreds of thousands of people is to come to Europe, it shows that the attractiveness of a prosperous and relatively stable continent in this rough world is still quite strong.

But that attractiveness bases itself on a model with rights and protection that are being deconstructed. And we are just standing by.

Geert Mak: You summarize the situation well. It can only be directed by a crisis and by the election results who are coming in the following years. When the construction collapses, a new construction will soon be created out of the shattered pieces. But the question will still be if that will protect us.

Do you trust that a possible new union would be better than the one there is right now?

Geert Mak: Sometimes I do, but I don’t really know. Absolutely not. As a journalist and a historian, you can predict few things about the future, but it is even harder to draw those lines when the structures are changing.

Geert Mak gave a lecture on March 17 in the Roma (Borgerhout) at the invitation of the Member of European Parliament Kathleen Van Brempt (sp-a). This article was translated from Dutch by Lisa Deelen.

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