Robert Menasse is an Austrian author and public intellectual. His latest novel “Die Hauptstadt” was nominated for the German Book Price. 

Save Liberal Democracy: You’re a kind of “in-house intellectual” in Brussels, where the “House of European History” recently opened. What is European historicity?

Menasse: Before we start I have to refute the label “Brussel’s in-house intellectual”! An intellectual always defines him- or herself as a critical institution and the current state of the European Union definitely demands a lot of criticism, especially from those who support the European Idea.

SLD: That still leaves the question of European historicity and history.

Menasse: The core problem of the EU is that its representatives seem to have forgotten – or never understood – the ideas of the founding contracts signed 60 years ago. That leaves us in a paradox spot: we need to protect a worthy projects from those who represent it. And that leads us to the question of historicity. It begins with the dialectic of the enlightenment that brought us liberty and equality on the one hand, and the nation-state on the other. The concept of nation-states led to the greatest crimes on this continent.

SLD: So how did the European Union overcome this dialectic?

Menasse: The admirable aspect of the European unification after 1945 was its clarity in analyzing this dialectic. Essentially, the consequence was to build this continent based on enlightenment and its creed of liberty and equality, while also overcoming nationalism.

SLD: But such great ideas naturally have enemies, and the returning nationalism is one of them. Is this development a possible by-product of the European development?

Menasse: The development is observable, but it has been completely misunderstood. The narrative for the return of European nationalism is: The EU doesn’t work and everyone has to look out for themselves again. But this rests on a fallacy that takes us back to European historicity. Back in the founding days, it was impossible to simply impose a supranational Union on the nation-states. Democratic legitimization was required, and that led to the creation of the European Council. But its members, heads of states and governments, are elected and re-elected on a national level. That is the paradox on which the European crisis rests.

SLD: But how does that explain the rise of nationalists?

Menasse: The national representatives in the Council block solutions as soon as they sense negative effects on their nation. These same people then return to their nations and claim that national solutions, not European ones, have to be found. But most problems we face these days aren’t solvable on a national level. This leaves us in a perceived impasse: neither national nor European solutions work. Nationalists then claim that the way to overcome the impasse is by asserting the nation more profoundly, and that requires stronger leaders. This nationalist spiral eventually leads into greater radicalization.

SLD: I agree with the potential consequences. But why doesn’t a strong regionalism, such as in Corse, the Basque region or Catalonia, translate into a strong pro-Europeanism?

Menasse: These regions, on which the Europe of the future was supposed to be built, feel betrayed by the European institutions. Neither the president of the council nor the commission cannot approve of a region’s secessionist claims because they continue to represent the interests of an assembly of nation-states.

SLD: Could you give us an example of this mechanism at work?

Menasse: Barroso made the mistake of telling the Scots: “If you decide to leave the UK, you’re leaving the EU”. Had he taken the Scottish pro-European stance into account he should have said: “You are pro-European and welcome, while the nationalists sit in London”. That would have been better for the European Union.

SLD: How does this regionalism compare to nationalism?

Menasse: There is a false narrative here, which claims that regionalism is an expression of strong nationalism and hence contradicts the claims of pro-Europeans. But actually, these regional movements just show that nation-states don’t work.

SLD: But why does this nationalist narrative currently work better than any other one?

Menasse: Nations are at core aggressive constructs, they have always been forged out of conquests or unification wars and usually lead to competition for spheres of influence, commodities and markets. The own nation’s gain is another nation’s loss. This reveals itself in international relations, even within the theoretically post-national EU. The relationship between Germany and Greece, or the tax dumping battle for capital investment among member nations. Regions, by contrast, are not aggressive and at core even cooperative and pacifist. No Basque has an interest in a territory that isn’t Basque. Regions are historically grown cultural units, which were not created through warfare. Moreover, they can’t be broken by nations and national boundaries. Think of Tirol! And they have a manageable size, which allows them to built a more coherent identity and participation of the populace. Its members, however, also know that they cannot live in autarky and depend on cooperation with other regions. The solution is a network of regions – and that is exactly what the European Union proposes.

SLD: A possible response to this is that while the construction of European identity does not lead to such a polarization as the inheritance of the enlightenment, it nonetheless remains a fiction.

Menasse: If it is a fiction, it’s a more useful fiction than the idea of a nation. But I don’t think that it is a fiction. It doesn’t make sense that someone from Tirol and someone from Vienna share the same passport, while someone from Bratislava – only 40 minutes away from Vienna – has a different one. Life in the two cities is much more similar, and so is the mentality of its inhabitants. Let me give you a second example. I lived in Brazil for eight years and learned Portuguese, but never managed to get rid of my Austrian accent. When people asked me where I was from, I responded “from Austria”. As that did not really help, I explained that Austria was a country close to Germany and often they would exclaim “Oh, so you’re from Europe”. Ever since, I say that I’m from Europe, not Austria. And when I meet someone from Italy or France in Brazil, I feel a bond that I don’t share with an American. National identity is much more fictional than cultural identity.

SLD: I observe a similar phenomenon among European professors at Harvard.

Menasse: Much changed between Europeans and Americans since the latter came to Europe as liberators. Back then, the aspiration for liberty and democracy connected both sides and this longing was expressed in the notion of a common “free world”. From my perspective, that changed with the coup in Chile. The protectors of democracy staged a coup against a democratically elected president and replaced him with a fascist dictator. I suddenly found myself throwing stones at the American embassy in Vienna, which I couldn’t have imaged two days earlier. I suddenly realized that Americans and Europeans had a different concept of democracy. And that’s how my personal politicization began.

SLD: And how does this explain the current era, in which nationalists are strong on both sides of the Atlantic?

Menasse: Because such pronounced nationalism and nationalists are a novel phenomenon to Americans, they don’t understand it. We Europeans have a historical experience with such characters and should be able to understand it better. But our European political elites have stopped thinking historically and hence don’t understand it either.

SLD: So what explains the appearance of Trump and rise of nationalism in Europe?

Menasse: There is an academic study published in 2014 by the “Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin” that analyzed the conduct and success of 20 parties for the last 40 years. In short, it revealed that parties lose voters when they run after their voters and win voters when they appear credible. The current situation in Europe could not be more supportive of this thesis. Social and Christian Democrats systematically lost voters to nationalists, and then ran after these voters into nationalist slogans. That made them non-credible and exacerbated the crisis.

SLD: How does this apply to the nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic?

Menasse: Trump was the only credible candidate because his flexibility on positions was part of his narrative of anti-dogmatism. Clinton claimed positions that Bernie Sanders had held and thereby lost her credibility. Similarly in Europe, where right-wing parties are credible because they don’t amend their stances. Pro-European parties that suddenly give up on Europe lose their credibility and can’t reclaim it by returning to their original position.

SLD: What exactly is this European experience that unites a German and Italian at the Brazilian beach and separates them from an American?

Menasse: The key difference lies in how we understand liberty. The US-leadership of the “free world” was premised on its protection of liberty. Liberty was a European desire since the beginning of the enlightenment and was exported to the “New World” because feudal and clerical powers were still too strong in Europe of the 17th century. But then the European and American concept began to diverge. While liberty was deduced from religious and economic liberty in the US, it developed into a political-revolutionary one in Europe. The  European ideal was a welfare state that focused on creating and maintaining justice and equality, which was not a core concern of the American settlers. Since then, Europe has been shaped by a concept of solidarity that is lacking in the United States. Hence there can’t be any political and economic consensus between Americans and Europeans on how the “Free World” is to be organized in the middle-term.

SLD: Robert Menasse, thank you very much for your time.


Photo: privat