Is Europe Disintegrating? A lecture with prof. Timothy Garton Ash

On April 25, the University of Warsaw and the European Council on Foreign Relations had the pleasure to host prof. Timothy Garton Ash for a lecture “Is Europe Disintegrating?” one of the “Eight lectures for the new millenium” organised by the University.

Prof. Garton Ash started by noting that out of many things that Europe can be taken for – a continent, a set of institutions but also an idea, a set of values – it is the institutions, the European Union that are under threat of disintegration. That would be a retreat from the highest level of integration that we have ever achieved in the European history, from the most advanced and networked example of international liberal order in the world. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, prof. Garton Ash said that “we live in the worst possible Europe, apart from other Europes that we have tried from time to time.”

Prof. Garton Ash then moved to sketch the main axis of his argument: Europe is in an existential crisis, spawned by a multitude of lesser crises – Euro crisis, Brexit, refugee crisis, Ukraine conflict etc. It is “do or die” for Europe now. He then moved to present tree main points of his lecture that consisted of arguments about the share causes of this existential crisis, explanation of ways that populists exploit all these discontents and ideas about what is to be done to get out of the crisis.


Timothy Garton Ash presented his main thesis thus: As sometimes happens in the history, seeds of this crisis were sown in the moments of the greatest triumph. In this case it is a 1989. Many, if not all, causes of this crisis can be traced back to the moment of this important year.

First of all, 1989 opened the door to the globalisation that gave birth to discontents on which populists base their rhetoric. It is not just that jobs went to immigrants but also globalisation’s social consequences rewarded just a small group of privileged. Prof. Garton Ash mentioned Kaczyński’s words about redistribution of dignity in Poland, noting similarities to the situation of white working class in the USA or in the UK. Fast transition to democracy in Central and South Europe, leading to EU enlargement in 2004, was another consequence of the events of 1989. The migration flow that followed was one of the biggest single reasons of Brexit.

Furthermore, after the collapse of the Soviet empire, the international community should have expected that Russian politicians would like to revenge – what Putin is doing to undermine the West is not surprising. In addition, prof. Garton Ash pointed out the symbolic moment of 4th of June 1989 – semi-free elections in Poland and Tiananmen massacre in China – that shows difference between the political directions that communist countries took in 1989. Chinese communist party understood the lesson of the collapse of the Soviet empire and learned to take advantage of globalisation through what prof. Garton Ash called Leninism-capitalism. Now China is not only a competitor of the EU but also a factor of division within the EU through such initiatives as 16+1.

Prof. Garton Ash also noted that crucial decision on Eurozone were taken just after the collapse of the Berlin wall. The idea was to embrace the united Germany in a larger European project and for France, Italy and others to take control over the German currency. However, instead of uniting Europe, euro is a factor of division between South and North and has a direct impact on Brexit. Furthermore, the focus on two big projects – enlargement and monetary union – drew attention from attempts to create a more coherent, strong, common foreign policy. This was put in stark contrast when the EU failed to react to the Arab Spring and thus forestall the refugee crisis.

Finally, Europe fell victim of its own success, as young Europeans experience a memory deficit, taking European achievements for granted. The internet, which was just breaking out to the public in 1989, had the unfortunate effect of spreading fake news and populist propaganda, contributing to the great fragmentation of the political scene.

Populist response

Populism, described by prof. Garton Ash as a crucial element of the crisis of Europe, is intrinsically nationalist, but it goes beyond nationalism, calling for people to take back control and promising a sovereign, national, democratic self-government. It is a distinct solution to Rodrick’s trilemma: when the triad of globalisation, sovereignty and democracy becomes unsustainable, populists reject globalisation to protect sovereignty and argue that they act in the name of democracy. The biggest danger is that in claiming to speak “for the people”, populists label their opponents “enemies of the people”. However, the imaginary “people” is in fact composed of disparate social groups, feeling ignored and humiliated. Populists need to employ a national narrative of common threat to weave them together.

What is to be done?

The answers to the crisis, prof. Garton Ash argues, are not just in Brussels, but lie mostly in the hands of decision makers, experts and academics working in particular states. Their responsibility is to reduce the memory deficit and to get people to listen to facts even if they do not want to. Business have to prepare to respond to the constant reduction in traditional jobs, while the centre-left needs to think how win back the part of their electorate that currently votes populists. When it comes to specific states, the UK should aim for the softest Brexit possible, while Poles needs to defend the pillars of democracy and think how to organise their future government.


Concluding his interview, prof. Garton Ash, underscored the reversibility of European disintegration if Europeans recognise and strengthen the core of the EU. He finished by addressing students in the audience:

You are among the greatest beneficiaries of what the Europe has done over this many decades. Your life chances, your personal chances are incomparably better because of this Europe that we have built (…). Please, remember, that only 28 years ago this country was still a dictatorship, that only 20 years ago there was a brutal war and genocide taking place in Former Yugoslavia, that as we speak there is a low-level war still going on in Eastern Ukraine. Europe has been there before and it could very easily and very quickly take a very, long way back. And when you wake up to it, it will be too late.


The lecture was followed by a Q&A session with students and other participants in the audience. Perhaps the most important theme was the French presidential election, which at the time was looming on the horizon, with several questions on Emanuel Macron’s chances of reforming France and on the possibility of the populist wave breaking. The tone of this discussion was cautiously optimistic, but it was noted that Macron faces considerable challenges in overcoming resistance to his ideas and if he fails, populists will be waiting to reassert themselves.

It was also noted that the recent European experiences with populism are a part of a worldwide backlash against liberalism, compounded by the after-effects of 2007-8 financial crisis. Nevertheless, prof. Garton Ash vehemently defended both European integration and enlargement. The accession of Central and Eastern European countries was a tremendous success, he argued, and we should expect further steps in this direction in the future. Even Turkey should not be ruled out, given its significance – both geostrategic and economic – and the need to show that the EU is not simply a club for Christian states.

Finally, asked by the Ambassador of Japan to Poland, H.E. Shigeo Matsutomi, about the reasons for defending European integration, prof. Garton Ash pointed out three main accomplishments: the EU prevents a repeat of Europe’s violent past, it safeguards Europeans’ quality of life and is the primary mean for Europe to remain relevant on the international arena.