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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: The remaking of Europe

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Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. This week’s edition is about how the war in Ukraine will remake the politics of Europe. In the past few weeks, I’ve visited several European capitals, including Vienna, Berlin and Stockholm. In Vienna, I caught up with an old friend who’s also one of the most interesting analysts of European politics. Ivan Krastev is co-author of The Light That Failed, a prizewinning book on central European politics. He’s also chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in his native Bulgaria, and now permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. So, how will the war in Ukraine change the power dynamics within Europe?

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Ever since the foundation of the European Union, it’s been something of a truism that the driving force of European integration was the Franco-German partnership. France and Germany were the two largest of the original six members of the EU. And even though the EU is now a club of 27 countries, Germany and France are still often seen as the two most powerful. But the war in Ukraine may be changing that. Both Germany and France have taken a lot of criticism for allegedly being too friendly to Vladimir Putin before the war in Ukraine. At the UN General Assembly last week, Emmanuel Macron, who once championed rapprochement with Russia, took a rather different tone.

Emmanuel Macron, via interpreter
Russia must now see that it cannot impose its will militarily even if there are fake, pretend referenda in territories that have been bombed and are now occupied. It is up to the members of the Security Council to say this loud and clear and to the members of this Assembly to support us on our path to peace.

Gideon Rachman
But the star turn at the UN was Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressing the General Assembly by video link from Kyiv.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy
A crime has been committed against Ukraine, and we demand just punishment. The crime was committed against our state borders. The crime was committed against the lives of our people. The crime was committed against the dignity of our women and men. The crime was committed against the values that make you and me a community of the United Nations. And Ukraine demands punishment for trying to steal our territory.

Gideon Rachman
The war’s turned Zelenskyy into a global figure and made the fate of Ukraine one of the most crucial international issues of our time. Some believe that Zelenskyy and Ukraine are experiencing their proverbial 15 minutes of fame, and that in time the Ukrainian question will fade into relative insignificance. But Ivan Krastev disagrees. As he explained when we met in Vienna, he thinks the question of Ukraine will now redefine the politics of Europe and the European Union.

Ivan Krastev
Before the war, you can argue, is Ukraine part or not of this European space? Now, you cannot argue it because this is obviously Europe’s war and European Union is so much part of it, reluctantly or not, that the geography of Europe has changed.

Gideon Rachman
So you think it’s inevitable that — inevitable a big word — but that Ukraine membership, which always seemed very, very distant, now is likely to happen at some point?

Ivan Krastev
I don’t believe that Ukraine can be integrated in the way the eastern European countries have been integrated before. It is about the consolidating of the western sphere of influence in Europe. And from this point of view, Ukraine is going to be integrated much quicker when it comes to the security space, to the energy space; it’s going to be a different integration. And secondly, this is going to be much more the reinvention of European Union than simply basically enlargement because the idea of the geopolitical Europe takes a totally different meaning when you have Russia on your border and this Russia at this time is a hostile power. And the third thing, which is also new, is that the relations of Germany to this crisis has changed. With the global financial crisis, Germany managed to show that they had economic power at the centre of European project. With the migration, basically, it was also a reaffirmation of how Germany perceives itself. Open solidarity, liberal Germany, very much in a conflict with some of the east Europeans but it was a crisis from the position of strength of Germany. And even during the Covid, which was difficult for everybody, German system worked. You didn’t have the feeling that the German political identity was challenged. With this crisis, the German political identity, in my view, was challenged on three major levels. One is outsourcing basically all security to the United States. Suddenly, Germany discovered, particularly after the Trump experience, that they should reinvest in defence capabilities. And for Germany this is kind of a heart surgery (laughter). The second was the idea that they can keep the economy at a industrial tradition based on the cheap Russian gas. It is over. And certainly Germany’s dependence on the Chinese market is going to be put into question with this type of a growing confrontation between the west and China. And from this point of view, the war in Ukraine also contributed to this.

Gideon Rachman
So Germany’s gone from being this country that felt like it had it all sorted out, that everybody should learn from, to being a country that sort of feels that it’s on the back foot, that it’s made mistakes. One thing that’s particularly interested me — I was in Berlin last week — was I hadn’t realised how bad German-Polish relations are — mainly about this question of Russia, but also around the rule of law issue. What do you think’s going on there?

Ivan Krastev
Listen, this is really big because in a strange way, in my view, the Polish-German relations is going to be so important for the future of the European Union as the French-German relations had been in the 1950s. Suddenly, countries like Poland said Germany lost the moral authority when it comes to the European project. Germany was wrong for not listening to us. And of course, there is quite a lot legitimate argument in part of it. It is true that Germany make, might’ve made a major mistake increasing its energy dependence on Russia after the occupation of Crimea. Before it is a different conversation, but after the occupation of Crimea, obviously there was a moment in which Poles are right to say that the Germans were not getting right what was going on. But at the same time, and this is very strong with this Polish government and could be very different with another Polish government, politically, they are all the time about kind of criticising and claiming about the rise of identity politics in the United States. But you see the discourse on Germany. This is kind of identity politics. It is classic.

Gideon Rachman
Because the Poles, to be clear, have just asked Germany for, I think, more than trillion euros reparations for the second world war.

Ivan Krastev
Trillions, more than trillion, for the World War II. And here’s the interesting story, you have a war on Europe. This war is of existentialist threat for Poland. And Poland makes it very clear. Poland opened itself to the Ukrainians. Poland is giving weapons to the Ukrainians, and Poland really supporting Ukraine like probably no other European countries doing this. But at the same time, the Polish government continues to insist that the threat from Germany is almost equal as the threat from Russia.

Gideon Rachman
Do you think they actually believe that?

Ivan Krastev
I had the feeling, and I hope that I am wrong, that the current Polish government decided that they’re going basically to make more votes for the next elections trying to mobilise this type of sentiment than relying on the European money. So suddenly anti-German sentiment is becoming an identity builder for the conservative camp that is now governing the country. And this is what I found interesting and in a certain way troubling because suddenly we have a foreign policy which is not the classical democracy versus autocracy, because if this is true, Poland and Germany should stay as close together as possible. It is not about classical realpolitik because in a classical realpolitik for Poland, it’s so important to Germany be very as close as possible. But this is an identity politic very much anchored in the past, and this is very much about past grievances and victimhood and this kind of asserting your own identity as the major victim of history. And this is why the relations with Germany became so difficult. There are other countries which also in central and eastern Europe started to develop other kinds of a disagreement with Germany. And this is why the relations with central and eastern Europe is important. One of this goes basically also to the energy policies. And this time about the fact what is more important: energy transition or energy security? On the other side, they had the feeling that for the last 30 years nobody was taking them seriously. They were just consumers of European policies. The discourse changed. And while some of the arguments, in my view, are legitimate, the tone of the discussion is becoming counterproductive and also hiding certain type of political issues which are very important for different countries. Because part of the things that Mr. Kaczyński is doing, attacking Germany all the time, is basically trying to hide the fact that the rule of law problems that Poland is facing are real issues.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And I wondered whether, I mean, you said that there’s this sort of genuine sense of emotion behind it, genuine identity politics behind it. But is it also, on the Polish side, a response to this crisis over the rule of law and a way of pushing Germany back? Because Poland has been found in violation of the rule of law by the European Court of Justice. It’s been fined, I think, €1mn a day if it doesn’t change its court decisions. Now the Poles, I think, believe that Germany is behind all of this. So it’s a way of pushing Germany back, isn’t it?

Ivan Krastev
Totally. And also, it’s very much about domestic politics. Poland is a divided country. In a way, Poland looks like the United States. There are two Polands, and these two Polands can be different. Values — they’ve made different choices. It’s this kind of rural/urban Poland. And suddenly for this kind of a Kaczyński’s Poland, Germany’s more important when it comes to identifying themselves than Russia because when it comes to Russia, there is not many Poles that are particularly friendly about Russia. There are not many Poles that basically has a different views of what President Putin is doing in Ukraine. But on Germany, they are divided. And Mr. Kaczyński really made a huge issue to the extent that he starts assuming and asserting that the leader of the opposition, Donald Tusk, is he speaks German at home, which everybody knows is just bullshit. But this idea that there is a Polish Poland and German Poland.

Gideon Rachman
So he’s trying to basically say that Tusk is a sort of German agent.

Ivan Krastev
Yeah, German agent. But interestingly enough, he’s also saying that what is Brussels and what is basically Berlin is also the power base for the Polish opposition. So for him, the whole story about the rule of law is about the story of Poland sovereignty and this is how he’s going to do this. So this is why, strangely enough, why you have an external threat, which on one level, of course, is unifying Poland. On the other side, none of the deep divisions in the country have been breached. And also, when you look at central and eastern Europe as a whole, we’re going to see a major divisions. Hungary is openly the most pro-Russian country in the European Union, forming a policy that is much more friendly to Vladimir Putin than anybody else. Of course, the Baltic republics and Poland are the ones most scared. Now, Hungarians and Poles, they agree when it comes to the rule of law and how they view Brussels, but they totally disagree on the war and on Putin. So from this point of, this is a moment in which central Europe really find itself at the centre, but it finds that the centre very much divided — divided between countries, but also divided within the countries.

Gideon Rachman
So let’s talk a bit about Viktor Orbán because I mean, it’s interesting as I say, I know you hadn’t picked up til I started travelling a bit more, how bad Polish-German relations were. But I think also partly because Viktor Orbán, if you go to the United States, is a huge figure, oddly, because of his relationship with CPAC, with the Trump Republicans and so on. And then, you know, speaking to people in Berlin and Brussels, I got the feeling actually they’re more concerned about Poland than about Hungary in some ways. But where do you think this war has placed Orbán?

Ivan Krastev
Viktor Orbán now is trying basically to define Hungary as an island within the ocean of the European Union, (laughter) which is fighting fiercely for its sovereignty. I never believed, to be honest, that he’s particularly Putin-friendly. I can see him much more interested in China than in Russia. But Orbán made a choice, which is very different than Poland’s. Poland decided the United States is so important for the security of Poland, that it is not going to be involved in the American domestic politics. So Kaczyński probably feels closer ideologically to Trump, but he’s never going to go into traps invented to take Biden, because for Poland, America is critically important. Here, Orbán made a choice, which is kind of very unexpected for a small European country. So he decided to enter the domestic politics of the United States and totally to bet on Trump and the Republican party. And he went basically directly to Fox News saying that, nevertheless, if what’s going to happen to the Republican party, Fox News is going to be important. And he tried to make out of himself a kind of a cult figure in the cultural wars. So now I do believe for the American right, but also for part of the European right, Orbán is what Fidel Castro was for the left in the 1970s. And this is how basically he’s trying to keep his importance in the European project because imagine for the moment that in 2024 there’s going to be a Republican president. The role of Hungary and Orbán is going to be totally different. While Orbán is highly nationalistic when it comes to cultural policy and he tries to concentrate power, on the other side he’s extremely friendly to big foreign companies, and particularly German companies. And you are not going to hear much anti-German rhetoric from him because his model is economic exporting-opening model based on a total political approach. Poland is different because Kaczyński does not simply want a cultural war. He really believes that at least 50 per cent of the banking sector should be owned by Poles. He’s particularly uneasy about foreign companies owning media in Poland. So from this point of view, they are not the same, but in a way both of them are betting on the same things. And this is that European Union is going to change in a direction of a much more economic space with a more political sovereignty. And this is why they don’t know what to do with this crisis because this crisis is pushing for a much more united Europe. This crisis is also much more pushing for common European foreign policy and much more geopolitical Europe. And Poland enjoys this to the extent that basically it should stand against Russia, but it fears that this is going to help Brussels to concentrate more power. And this is why, when it comes to the energy policies, you can see that both Poland and Hungary are very much trying not to support any policy that is going, for example, to allow Brussels to ask for certain type of cuts of electricity consumption and so on. They said, no, you can’t advise us to do this, but it’s about the sovereignty.

Gideon Rachman
So how do you think these pressures will balance out, particularly on the issue of leadership in Europe? Because, as you were saying, the previous crises, the euro crisis, the immigration crisis, in a way bolstered German leadership within Europe. This one less so, but they’re on the back foot. And everything, on the other hand, as you say, in a way, it also pushes for more integration, which has been a traditional German cause. How do you think that’s going to play out?

Ivan Krastev
Listen, it can play differently and the next six or nine months are going to be very difficult for the European Union because the economic war between the west and Russia is going to be at its peak, and President Putin has only one chance. And this is to use this winter basically to break European Union. But if the European Union is going to survive it might one thing is going to change and this is here, Poland is right that some of the frontline countries are going to have much more say in the European politics. So from this point of view, countries like Poland would be very important for the next two or three years. The only problem is what kind of Poland.

Gideon Rachman
Well quite, can you have, you know, the European Union is meant to be a union of values, can you have a country that has eroded the rule of law, that’s being sued by the European Court of Justice, playing a leading role in the European Union?

Ivan Krastev
Yeah, this is in mind of the major contradiction now at the centre of the European project. Because of the war, European Union cannot pretend that Europe is a postwar continent. So you need this type of a geopolitical dimension, which before was rhetoric and now basically the reality. But you cannot have a geopolitical Europe without Poland, which is de facto integrated without the Baltic states. On the other side, you cannot have the constitutional integrity of the European Union if you allow basically the countries totally to ignore the supremacy of European law and to try to go for their own arrangements. So my view, the future of Europe is going to be decided so much on the next Polish elections. It’s very rarely in history any European elections has been doing like this.

Gideon Rachman
And they’re when?

Ivan Krastev
They’re going to be next year. This could be in the spring, it could be latest in the autumn. And out of these elections, which are going to be elections in a moment of war and crisis, we’re going to have either Europe, which is going to be much more consolidated, both as a geopolitical but also as a kind of a value union, or we can see a Europe which is going to be much more torn apart. So from this point of view, Polish elections next year probably going to be as important for Europe as the Brexit vote was. It’s not because Poland wants to leave the European Union, but because of the fact what kind of Polish government you’re going to have. You’re going to have a totally different type of Europes.

Gideon Rachman
I mean, maybe I’ve become almost too sanguine about the European Union, but I’ve seen it go through so many crises that I’ve come to believe that it is, it’s gonna want qualities that somehow see it through. And could one argue that for all these huge tensions at the heart of the European Union and now this security threat, actually, you know, the European Union, if you look at the big picture, is strengthening gradually. You know, Ukraine is obviously highly attractive to the EU, which tells you something about its power. Russia’s doing badly in this war. And if you look over the last decade, the EU has moved towards common financing because of the pandemic. Now with the Zeitenwende in Germany, there’s gonna be much more European defence spending. And somehow these intra-country tensions, they manage them because they do have a common interest in sticking together. So I sort of think that they’ll get there, but maybe that’s too . . . 

Ivan Krastev
No, no. Listen to me.

Gideon Rachman
 . . . optimistic.

Ivan Krastev
I agree with you. But first, I never believed that European Union should be taken for granted. Because the moment you take something for granted, you’re already at risk. But at the same time, like you, I very much believe in the resilience of European Union. Because European genius was about surviving crisis, not resolving them. And after each crisis, you rediscover how important these countries are for each other. And I do believe that now, if European Union did not exist, it should have been invented in the geopolitical circumstance in which Europeans live. So, if Polish elections go for a much more pro-European option, then you’re going to have a level of integration which is not simply going to allow it to survive, but you’re also going to have a resilience based on the idea of a transformation. What I mean? Germany needs a strong partner on the east, particularly if Ukraine is going to be it. This is a different east. Ukraine is a big country because people, particularly in European Union, are so much used to small and midsize countries that they don’t realise how big a country Ukraine is. And Poland, obviously not simply geographically but also politically, is very well prepared and very well understanding what is happening in Ukraine. So from this point of view, the European choice of Poland in the way that Poland becoming a major factor for the consolidation of the European Union, this is the most important thing. It’s about integrating Ukraine. Because, as I said, Ukraine is not going to be integrated simply like opening and closing chapters.

Gideon Rachman
You mean, that that’s the traditional way that basically the EU presents with 30 chapters and you go through them and you change all law and they don’t.

Ivan Krastev
Yeah.

Gideon Rachman
But you think it’s even feasible to incorporate Ukraine into the EU? I mean, you say it’s a big country. I can just hear people in France saying behind their hands, “This is craziness. You know, they’re huge, they’re poor, they’ll blow up the Common Agricultural Policy. They’ll draw us into permanent conflict with Russia. We can’t do this”.

Ivan Krastev
Listen, this is true. And truth is that you cannot not integrate them because then what you are doing? And from this point of view, in security terms, it is going to be already integrated because you cannot allow anymore simply a buffer state. And then we open to the Ukrainians so they may enjoy the freedom to travel and to work. And I do believe that the level of destruction, which the Russians are going to impose, is going to be so big that even sustaining Ukraine as a functioning country very much is going to depend on the money coming from the European Union and the United States. So what I said, it is not going to be in large amount in the way it was, but you are going to have reconstitution of what is European-western political space. And from this point of view, of course, Macron is touching on something real when he was talking about his geopolitical Europe. Because even before being a member of the European Union, these are the type European decisions that you cannot exclude Ukraine. For example, you cannot exclude Ukraine of any future talk about Russia. You cannot exclude Ukraine about any type of future energy policies. The same, to certain extent, is coming about the Balkans. So part of the European Union is that we are using the same words for totally different processes. This is not simply basically integrating the eastern Europeans after the end of the cold war. This is reconstituting Europe in a situation in which fighting in the cold war is around. And this is demanding a different task. And probably if we are going to use a different words, people are going to understand better what we are talking about.

Gideon Rachman
And is that form of creating a new relationship with Ukraine, which is probably many years short of membership, that also maybe begins to help solve the issue of the relationship of the UK with the EU and of Turkey?

Ivan Krastev
Totally, because basically and from this point of view, Turkish elections are going to critically important. There is a kind of a security space, and this is not simply security in terms of hard security, but this is basically with whom you share data, whom you are going to go to travel. Because one thing has changed dramatically with this war, and this is the nature of European borders. Before this war, at least 10 years ago, Europeans could be living with the idea that we are surrounded by future members. And the idea was we should have hard budget but soft borders. Now we have hard borders. And even this discussion about to ban visas to the Russians or not, it’s going to come with other issues. This is going to be a totally different discussions. We are talking about different type of borders. And then the problem is who on which side of border is a critical question. And this is why Ukraine cannot be left on its own because this idea of neutral countries which are just kind the way in between, it collapsed in the moment in which Sweden and Finland declared the interest of joining Nato. So this is a different geography. This is a different constitution of European space. And then the United Kingdom is also going to ask itself, basically, OK, being an island is a nice (laughter) option, but where you are in all this, how you are going to be integrating? At some point you might oppose you have been living with the idea that Ukraine, Poland, UK can be a kind of a sovereign states surrounding and basically protecting borders of the European Union. But I don’t see that this is particularly attractive to the majority of the Polish citizens or the Ukrainian citizens. You don’t want to be the border guards of Europe; you want to be part of it.

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Gideon Rachman
That was Ivan Krastev speaking to me from Vienna and ending this week’s edition of the Rachman Review. I hope you found it interesting and that you’ll join me again next week.

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