Timothy Garton Ash on Europe & the War in Ukraine

In his latest book Homelands, Timothy Garton Ash, one of the greatest writers on European affairs, tells the story of how Europe emerged from the ravages of war in 1945, recovered, rebuilt, and moved toward the ideal of a Europe that is “whole, free, and at peace” ‒ until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A conversation about shattered illusions, the war in Ukraine, democratic backsliding, and the fight for freedom.

Timothy Garton Ash

The interview was conducted by Roderick Kefferpütz in December 2023.

Roderick Kefferpütz: In 11 books of political writing, you have charted the transformation of Europe over the last half-century. How does your latest book Homelands relate to your other pieces of writing?

Timothy Garton Ash: This book basically took me 50 years to write. It is, on the one hand, a summation of all my previous work on Europe. I look back on all the events I witnessed, all the people I met, and all the scholarship and thinking on Europe over the last half-century. Beyond this “history of the present,” however, it is also a critical reflection. Taking advantage of hindsight, I ask: How did things turn out so badly? What did we liberal Europeans get so wrong, leading us to what I call “the great downward turn” after 2008? This cascade of crises, from the Russo-Georgian war and the financial crisis to the refugee crisis and annexation of Crimea by Russia, leading us all the way to February 24, 2022, and Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

What did we get wrong?

This is also a book of self-criticism. I plead guilty to some of the many varieties of hubris and illusions that led us into this cascade of crises. For example, we believed that the arc of history was moving towards greater freedom, democracy, and liberal open societies. Like many others, I genuinely believed that when the countries of Central and Eastern Europe joined the European Union, their EU membership would safeguard their democracy. After all, that is how it is meant to be. This is the constitutional theory of the European Union. No sooner had I reached that conclusion than Viktor Orbán started proving me wrong.

He already started systematically dismantling Hungarian democracy back in 2010 ...

That’s right, and now he blackmails the entire European Union on one of the most important strategic issues of our time: support to Ukraine. At the last European Council meeting in December 2023, he held the EU hostage over Ukrainian accession and then blocked further financial aid that is necessary to support Ukraine. Ukraine also shattered our illusion of perpetual peace. We believed we were heading for an idyllic eternal peace; that we no longer needed to worry about the hard military component of security. This naïveté has been completely blown out of the water. That is why I argue that February 24, 2022 is the beginning of a new historical period.

… and with it, the end of what you describe as the “postwall” period. The “post-war” period after 1945 and the “post-wall” period after 1989 are the conceptual framework through which you analyze Europe’s development in your latest book.

And they really are overlapping periods. This is very unusual for the European order. Normally, when you have a big historical turning point in Europe, the cards are all thrown up in the air and they come down in a new pattern, like in 1815 or 1918. However, the post-wall European order essentially kept the post-war order intact. It simply extended the Western European order – defined, for instance, by freedom, liberal democracy, the EU, and NATO – to the other half of the continent. But with this extension, in the post-wall period we developed this series of illusions regarding the progress of peace, freedom, and democracy. In the post-war period, people didn’t think that way at all. They knew everything was under challenge. They knew how important military security was.

February 24, 2022 reminded us of that fact.

Exactly. It shattered our illusions and thereby signifies the end of the post-wall epoch. And this new period that is now beginning is incredibly important. Because in life, as in relationships and in politics, beginnings matter. Take 1945. The first few years after 1945 shaped the European order for decades to come, as did the first years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. What we are doing now is intrinsically more important than what we were doing in 2003 or 2013.

But is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine then really the end of the post-wall period, or is it rather a return to the post-war period? As you mentioned, we did not harbor any of these illusions of perpetual peace and freedom before the fall of the wall. So do we need to return to that kind of thinking?

No one ever steps in the same river twice. The world we are in today is significantly different. From 1949 to1989, we had a fairly stable bipolar world. The world we have come back into is neither like the post-war nor like the post-wall world. It rather more resembles late 19th century Europe. It is a world of realpolitik where war is back as an instrument of politics and where there is no clear bipolar structure, but multiple greater middle powers. This is an à-la-carte world where countries like India, Turkey, Brazil, or South Africa feel no compulsion to align themselves with the West or the East, with us or China, with us or Russia. They are quite happy having multiple partnerships. This is very different. And I think this is something we Europeans are having great difficulty adjusting to.

Europe has reacted to Russia’s war of aggression, and a change in thinking has taken place. With Ukraine entering its third year of war, how do you judge Europe’s and particularly Germany’s response, highlighted by the expression that was used in this context, Zeitenwende, a turning point in history?

Your readers know the crisis theory of integration, which dates back to Jean Monnet, and the belief that European integration advances through crises. Every time the EU faces a crisis, it responds and is strengthened by the integration that was driven by this crisis. The truth is: Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. I challenge anyone to tell me how the refugee crisis of 2015/2016 actually advanced the cause of European integration!

But in the case of Ukraine, the mechanism of challenge and response has clearly worked.

Clearly. There has been impressive unity and rapid change. Who would have thought on the eve of February 23, 2022 that the EU would be using the European Peace Facility to finance arms and ammunition for Ukraine? That is extraordinary. The question is, can we keep it up? Are we capable of doing more? With rapidly fading US support for Ukraine, we have to do even more to help Ukraine achieve something that can plausibly be called victory. And settling for the current territorial division, in which Putin’s Russia occupies nearly one fifth of Ukraine, is not a victory. That’s a defeat. Let’s be very clear about that.

What does this mean for the Zeitenwende? Shouldn’t we revisit this concept, two years into the war?

Germany has come a long way. It took roughly a year from Chancellor Scholz’ Zeitenwende speech to the point when Germany actually drew the right consequences and started significantly arming and supporting Ukraine. Now Germany is the second largest supporter of Ukraine. But now is also the time to step up. We need a second turning point inside the Zeitenwende. This one would be to understand that we have to do whatever it takes to actually get Ukraine to something that can seriously be called victory. Something that will be seen by Ukrainians as a victory, by Russians as a defeat, and by the rest of the world as a victory for Ukraine and a defeat for Russia. Public opinion polling shows that the rest of the world thinks that the West is at war with Russia, and that Russia is winning. Our Western and European credibility is at stake. This is the next step that has to be made with the second anniversary of the Zeitenwende.

Homelands not only describes the mood and political courage of ordinary Europeans, but also highlights how political leaders such as Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher, and Mikhail Gorbachev shaped history. Who are those political leaders today? Putin, Xi, Zelensky: Is historical leadership to be found outside the EU today?

History is always the interaction between deep structure and process on the one hand and conjuncture, chance, and individual leadership on the other. And it needed both for us to enter the “post-wall” period. In terms of shaping European history today, I’m afraid you’re right. The stand-out names, bad and good, are outside Europe ‒ Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Donald Trump on the negative side, or Volodymyr Zelensky on the good side. We do have some good leaders in Europe. Ursula von der Leyen has been very impressive in leading the EU response to Ukraine. Kaja Kallas in Estonia has been fantastic. Robert Habeck has also done a fantastic job in Germany. But if we are to shape this new period, we need to go to a new level.

What exactly do you mean by that and how could we attain it?

One problem is that national government leaders in Europe don’t really want the big hitters in the top jobs in the EU. They don’t like the competition. They want to run the show themselves. So it is absolutely crucial that this year, after the European election, we go for the absolutely best people when it comes to the top jobs in Brussels. We need a new quality of European leadership to take us into this new period.

2024 also marks the 20th anniversary of the biggest enlargement in EU history, the accession of the new democracies from Central and Eastern Europe. During those last 20 years, as you mentioned earlier, we have seen democratic backsliding and an erosion of the rule of law, especially in Hungary. While the election in Poland was a bright light in that darkness, authoritarian tendencies overall are increasing. How do you explain this development?

The Polish election was incredibly important. It shows: You can still win elections, even with a nationalist, populist party advancing state capture to such an extent that the election was procedurally free, but certainly not fair. It is also about how this election was won. On June 4,1989, when the Poles had the chance to end 40 years of Communism, only 62 percent turned out to vote. On October 15, 2023, 74 percent turned out. More women than men. One study showed if only the men had voted, the Law and Justice party would have remained in power. Also, more voters under the age of 29 turned out than over the age of 60. That is unheard of in Europe! Usually, it is always the old who turn out for every vote. So there’s a real lesson there.

But what about the setbacks you mentioned?

There are many reasons, of course. One is the hubris that I talk about in my book, which is that liberalism was largely reduced to just economic liberalism. This financial globalization and type of capitalism simply didn’t work for other parts of our societies. That’s when populists come along and claim to have all the answers and claim to speak for the people against these dreadful, liberal, cosmopolitan metropolitan elites. This is a powerful, nationalist narrative, with conservative cultural policies and left-wing economic and social policies. A big role for the state and big handouts. It’s a very effective formula.

And in Central and Eastern Europe, they come up against fragile state institutions. They are not fragile because they are Eastern European, of course. This is not culturally determined. But because they are very new democracies, so naturally, the institutions are more fragile than in old, established democracies.

You are particularly critical of the European Union’s inability to prevent this development. In some parts of your book, you argue that the US was taking more action on Hungary than the EU was.

Absolutely. It is one of the great failures of the EU, already since 2010 when Orbán took office. Do you remember how long his Fidesz party was still a member of the European People’s Party (EPP)? People were always telling me that Orbán was actually perfectly cooperative, it was just a small problem, that we were being hysterical. Look where we are now. We now have Viktor Orbán holding the future of Europe hostage. So yes, I am very critical. I think it was a vastly underestimated issue.

What could have been done better?

Let’s take Germany, for example. To be perfectly honest, I think this was a specific failure of Germany. Germany has extraordinary influence in Hungary. The Hungarian economy depends hugely on the German car industry. But Germany did not use its power. My friend Michael Ignatieff, former President of the Central European University in Budapest, who was kicked out by Orbán, wouldn’t mind me sharing this. Michael once said to me: “You know, the one thing that might have kept us in Budapest was one single telephone call from Angela Merkel to Viktor Orbán.” One phone call. But that call never came.

What enlargement lessons does Europe need to learn and what does Europe particularly need to do better for others, like Ukraine?

We have had a virtual paralysis of the process of EU enlargement. One country, just one – Croatia – joined the EU in the 15 years from 2008 to 2022. Now we have a new energy with Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and the Balkans. Yet, I think this time around, enlargement will have to be done very differently. It can’t be like North Macedonia, a candidate country since 2004, sitting in the waiting room for 20 years, waiting for all of the 267 boxes to be ticked and fulfilled. We cannot continue like that. I believe it has to be done incrementally. Especially when you are bringing in a country at war that has been devastated by a brutal war of aggression. For Ukraine, links will have to be made between reconstruction and reform inside Ukraine and coming closer to the European Union in different areas.

What advantages could this approach offer?

First, you create a positive feedback loop. You do something, you get something. It provides an incentive for Ukraine and others to take the next step. Second, it means that the really big politically difficult issues, such as how to integrate Ukraine into the Common Agricultural Policy, or the question of voting rights, come later in the process. It gives us more time to do the essential reforms the existing EU requires while keeping a sense of progress for the candidate countries.

Your work’s flagship causes have always been freedom and Europe. Both are under threat and in a completely new context of a world in disorder. What gives you hope and optimism during these times?

When people have a little experience of un-freedom, they start to long for freedom. Poland is a great example. Or take Ukraine. We have this wonderful Ukrainian word volya, which means both freedom and the will to fight for freedom. Or look at some other societies. Many young Chinese, many young Russians have left their countries. Or when you ask South Africans or Brazilians: Where do you want to live? Nobody says Russia. Almost nobody mentions China. They want to live in Europe or the United States. And that’s not because we are rich. China is also quite rich now. It is because we are free. I have great confidence in the profound appeal – universal appeal – of freedom to heads and hearts.

What do we need to do to rally more Europeans around this cause?

What we have to demonstrate is that free societies do things better because this is where we have fallen short. We have not been able to deliver on equality, on welfare for the other half of our societies, on climate change. It is for us to turn that core human desire for freedom into effective policies through good politics.

Timothy Garton Ash is a British historian, commentator, and author writing on the contemporary history of Europe with a special focus on Central and Eastern Europe. He is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University.

Roderick Kefferpütz is the Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s EU Office in Brussels.

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