In Poland, we feel very comfortable, we experience harmony which is no longer to be found in Belgium, and we would like our children to grow up in exactly this type of environment. I have said it many times before, but I will say it again: our move to Poland was like returning to Europe to us – Olga Doleśniak-Harczuk interviews Professor David Engels, historian, philosopher, and senior analyst of the Institute for Western Affairs.
*Are you a pessimist?
I am perceived as such; however, I consider myself to be a realist. The prospects facing Europe today are far from what I would have wished for. I try to approach the processes I observe with a high degree of realism.
*Is Europe or the European Union, more precisely, standing on the edge of the abyss?
I am afraid so. As a historian specialising in ancient history, when assessing our times, I am guided by a very specific and historically rooted vision of the world. I analyse the correlation between historical and cultural processes, and confront the past with the present. This analysis is the basis for my book “The Decline. The Crisis of the European Union & the Decline of the Roman Republic”.
*The book was published in 2014 and aroused great interest not only among historians. I remember that the book received broad coverage in the German press, even in publications which are unfavourable to your point of view. You could say that you hit a raw nerve, and initiated an important debate.
The book was originally published in French, has been translated into several languages since 2014, and will soon be available in Dutch. It aroused a lot of interest in that sense. In it, I tried to portray just how much the identity crisis of the European Union today is reminiscent of the crisis of the Roman Republic in its final stage of existence. The tell-tale signs are very similar. The Romans were no strangers to multiculturalism, problems of unemployment, the breakdown of the traditional family model, mass immigration, demographic decline, the loss of importance of traditional religion, and such phenomena as technocracy, populism and fundamentalism. All these events are similar to those experienced by the European Union today. The declining Roman Republic was scarred by numerous conflicts, bloody civil wars, and I fear that a similar scenario can be expected in the near future within the boundaries of the EU, at least in the west of Europe. The European Union is at a crossroads. The crisis that it will be a party to does not have to equal the end of the unification process or the collapse of the European Union, but it will certainly be an important moment in history.
*And will this crisis put the liberal left-wing slogan of “more integration” into practice or, on the contrary, will it restore the community to its original form when the states had more to say than the Brussels headquarters?
By following all the threads that I tried to weave together in my book, such a phase of unrest in Europe may lead to the creation of a quasi-authoritarian state, one which will be able to harness the opposing elements and introduce relative stability. I find it possible to imagine a state built upon the model created by Augustus. The Augustan Principate was built on the vestiges of the Republic when, on the one hand, attempts were made to preserve its classical values and, on the other hand, a moderately conservative system was already being implemented. It was a strange entity, where the institutions of the Republic were maintained, but the homogeneity and stability of the whole structure were guaranteed by the Emperor himself. A ruler who saw himself as a governing force, mediating between different sides. It was neither a totalitarian nor a monarchical state, but rather something I call an imperial compromise. This compromise was between the still existing pluralist institutions, which minimised the risk of everyone jumping down their throats again, since everything was supervised by the emperor, who resembled a judge of the Supreme Court bringing together divided parties and acting as a mediator and supervisor. In my opinion, this is what awaits Europe shortly after the period of intense internal shocks.
*How will this theory translate into the European reality of today’s European Union, which has divided into two camps ahead of the upcoming European Parliament elections: a liberal and left-wing camp advocating total integration and a conservative camp that rejects the concept of a superstate holding the full decision-making power in its institutions? Will the EU have the chance to redefine itself anew after the parliamentary elections?
The game will be played on two levels. At the level of customary political contests within the EU institutions and at the level of societies. In May, conservative politicians and Eurosceptic parties, or rather Union-sceptic, will certainly achieve a good result, but this will not have any major consequences, because these parties – as we can see on the example of France or Germany – have not managed to cross a certain threshold despite the momentum being in their favour. In the case of the European Parliament, I expect a similar scenario. After the May elections, the European Parliament will function in the same way as it did before. The same applies to other EU institutions; liberal and left-wing parties will build coalitions to temper these Union-sceptic entities, as is currently happening in the Bundestag, where practically all parties across the divide seek to oust the Alternative for Germany (AfD). This is a paradox as AfD has been promoted to the role of guaranteeing that the Christian Democrats continue to wield power. The mechanism behind it is quite simple: since none of the parties wants to enter into a coalition with AfD, the bypassing of the CDU-CSU is impossible, which strengthens this camp, making it indispensable. I predict that this mechanism will apply to the coming European Parliament, the front lines will become even more precarious, the divisions will be clearer, but the EU as we know it will not deviate from the beaten track that it has been walking along for years. At a lower level, at the level of social, demographic and economic development, I expect the collision course to continue. Europeans will have fewer children, Islam will continue to spread, parallel societies will keep being radicalised, we will see even more violence on the streets, situations similar to the “yellow vest” protests in France will become a permanent fixture of European reality, a form of creeping civil war that will grow into the fabric of Europe’s everyday life. This is my concise, two-tier forecast for the next several years of the European Union’s existence.
*The situation you are discussing must have had its causes, and as a result of economic and demographic turmoil, Europe has become a much less predictable place than it was 10 or 15 years ago. At the forefront is the immigration policy of the old EU countries, which has permanently divided the Member States, giving the worn out slogan of the “two-speed Europe” a new meaning. To what extent will the latest influx of immigrants to Europe determine its fate for the coming years?
As far as immigration is concerned, it is necessary to separate the idiosyncrasy of the problem faced by Germany from that which has been experienced by the French or British for many decades. In France, the phenomenon of mass immigration is much older than in Germany. Since the First World War, France has been home to a growing number of immigrants from the French colonial empires, especially those who profess Islam. In Germany, immigration became a topic in the 1960s. This was due to the influx of Turkish citizens who took up employment in Germany and settled there. In 2015, Germans began to feel the consequences of mass immigration comparable to those that had long ago become the daily reality of their French neighbours. In this sense, Germany has already been “normalised” as it has the same problems as France today. The situation in Germany was misinterpreted after the end of the Second World War, and people from countries with contrasting cultures and religious traditions were brought over to work without further consideration as to whether they would remain in the country permanently and whether they would integrate into society. For a long period of time, Germans were convinced that the Gastarbeiters would stay only as guests and in good time return to their homeland. Moreover, the attractiveness of the Western European cultural model was completely overestimated for the newcomers. It was particularly difficult for Germans to convince the Turks, for example, that this German model was the best; their post-war experiences did not allow them to feel proud of their own nation and its achievements, so it was difficult to disseminate enthusiasm for the values of a state which functioned in a sense of culpable trauma. In recent years, however, Germany has developed its own system of immigration affirmation, and we can safely refer to it as an immigration industry based on the ideology of multiculturalism. It is not only about the views and actions of the political class, as it can always be replaced with a new one in the next elections, but also about the entire generation of journalists, entrepreneurs, charities, etc., which are involved in maintaining the pro-immigration system.
All these groups form the backbone of an exhaustive immigration industry, which, on the one hand, profits from it and, on the other, fuels it. If someone has based their whole life on disseminating the ideology of multiculturalism, it will not be easy for them to leave this beaten track. Stopping this machine or shifting it to another track seems impossible by then. This is because things have gone too far; the number of immigrants who have recently arrived in Germany is quite considerable, and this would be impossible to turn it around overnight, even if there was a will to do so. This applies not only to Germany, of course, but Western Europe as a whole.
*And above all, there’s still the spectre of multiculti.
The concept of multiculti has failed spectacularly. At least one aspect of multiculturalism related to integration has certainly been found lacking. There are differences in how immigrants belonging to the Muslim minority integrate into Western European societies and, for example, how this is done by those from countries located in Sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, the latter group enjoying much less media coverage and being much less expansive than the Muslim minority. The Chinese do not wish to convert the entire world to Confucianism, the immigrants from Africa are mostly Christian anyway, while Islam is a religion with expansionist potential and its followers do not confine themselves to living their religion within the boundary of their own group, but also seek to spread it. That is one thing. The second problem, which I think is much more serious, is not even linked to the presence of Muslim minorities as such in Europe, and it would be absurd to constantly tell them off for behaving in accordance with their cultural heritage, which they have imported from their countries of origin. The problem lies somewhere else. The issue is the European culture itself, which does not show enough clout or will to offer the newcomers a certain attractive alternative to the culture and tradition in which they have been brought up in. Instead of such a sensible proposal, we are seeing in Western Europe a tendency to degrade our own values to the level of one of many minorities, to disperse into the so-called equal rights in this multicultural melting pot, hoping that thanks to the disappearance of a leading culture, everyone will find living easier and more pleasant. This is a mistake, because this attitude only discourages newcomers from making any effort to adapt. It is impossible to integrate in line with guidelines that simply do not exist. This results in a state of dormancy, which makes the life of all members of Western societies more difficult rather than easier.
*Politicians and experts who, for instance, in Germany, have raised the issue of building a model of integration based on the leading culture (Leitkultur in German), faced a wall of misunderstanding. Bassam Tibi and Friedrich Merz failed to convince the political elites to change the focus of their integration policies, especially with regard to the Muslim minority. If they failed in the task, can anyone succeed?
Bassam Tibi, with whom I am in contact, wrote to me about his frustration, about the failure of the so-called Euro-Islam. And that is an issue. Particularly because the matter cannot be deemed as concluded, as at least in Western Europe we will have to work out some form of amity with Islam – this issue cannot be swept under the carpet. There are, of course, voices that everything in Western Europe can still be put right, and that a return to circumstances from two or three generations ago – i.e. monocultural Christian tradition – is still possible. I am not convinced about this statement. The demographic changes that have taken place in Europe over the last few decades are too profound. It would be more realistic to expect the Christian tradition to stop degrading itself to the level of minorities in its own home, and instead set a framework for the principles of integration aimed at real minorities. So that Christianity would be the rule and Muslim communities an exception, and no one would question such order.
Today, this order is challenged on a daily basis. If out of 100 people, 99 say “A” and one says “B”, a politically correct person will say that opinions are divided, but the true picture is that the majority has a different opinion than the minority. I am not saying that the opinion of this minority should be ignored, it should be tolerated, but it must not be treated as equivalent, because it is not such. Mathematically, it is one to 99. And in today’s Europe, the public debate goes for parallelism instead of evaluation. The result is increasing uncertainty. This leads to a situation where Europeans often feel alien in their own country, while newcomers lose their sense of direction in a world without clear guidelines. Sometimes, they become radicalised because people at times behave like small children – they need to be offered a framework, rules they can comply with, some boundaries which are not to be crossed. The problem begins when there is nothing to hold onto. If there are no boundaries, everything is allowed.
* On 12 February this year, at the Polish Cultural Institute in Berlin, the Institute for Western Affairs held an international debate on national identity in Europe. A lively discussion ensued, not only among the panellists. “Die Welt” devoted two pages to this event. Was it worth going to Berlin?
It was important for us at the Institute for Western Affairs that this debate takes place in Germany rather than Poland, as Germans find the concept of identity very controversial. Usually, it is Germany that comments on certain phenomena and events taking place in Poland or Hungary, assessing its neighbours and frequently interfering in the affairs of other countries. We were of the opinion that this should be counteracted. We wanted to initiate a discussion were it is our perspective, rather than a German point of view, which is taken as the starting point and then resounds in Berlin.
*What was interesting from the point of view of an observer was how the German panellists referred to their own identity. One of the participants even mentioned the German gene of self-loathing, the legacy of the crimes committed during World War II. What is the situation regarding that German feeling of guilt?
Many Germans continue to have issues with their own identity, and the burden of WWII crimes is still perceptible. The experiences linked to National Socialism make it difficult for Germany to develop a healthy sense of national pride, which is fully understandable. What I am particularly interested in, however, is the fact that this guilt is much greater today than it was twenty years ago. This self-loathing is gaining momentum, while the entire German identity today is based on the rejection of National Socialism and, at the same time, on the dismissal of German history as a whole, treated as a series of events that culminated in the creation of the Third Reich. Such theories can be considered outlandish when examples are given that National Socialism was already germinating under Charlemagne, or that Luther and Frederick the Great were his next quasi-precursors – such opinions are ridiculous, but they do exist. At the same time – and this is a dangerous phenomenon – Germans have developed a certain propensity for moral superiority over the rest of Europe through self-loathing and the ongoing settling of matters with themselves. Germans have transformed into a moral superior who know what is good and just not only for themselves, but also for everyone around them.
*Such thesis was also put forward by a German columnist Josef Joffe, who devoted the entire book on the evolution of the German state from the outcast of Europe to a moral superpower...
That is correct. Germans have drawn a strange conclusion from the Holocaust which states that today no one has the right to criticise them for anything, because they have atoned and cut themselves off from the criminal past. They have been promoted from pariahs to teachers who are entitled to instruct others. This is not a purely German phenomenon, because it applies to the whole of Europe.
*Let us talk about you. You have emigrated from Belgium to Poland, and here you have begun a new chapter in your life. What was the impulse that made you pack your suitcases and move here?
Many different factors influenced my decision, but one of the most important issues was that my family and I felt that the atmosphere in Belgium was toxic. The self-hatred of the indigenous community, the omnipresent sense of hopelessness of ordinary people and the politically correct optimism of the political class, which sweeps problems under the carpet. Besides, almost 25 per cent of the population of my former town are Muslim; the centre of the town is almost exclusively Muslim, and the same applies to schools. Belgian parents take their children away from cities, and move to the country to send them to village schools. This is a situation when your own home suddenly becomes an alien place within a dozen or so years, rather than centuries. It was difficult for us to raise children in such conditions; aggression and anxiety were tangible in the air, ready for a spark that would start a great fire and blow everything up. The mayor of our town admitted openly that we are on the brink of civil war, that we must not provoke the local Muslims, because the conflict would escalate. Because we had visited Poland many times in the past, and we liked the atmosphere here, we decided to move to Poland. We feel very comfortable here, we experience harmony which is no longer to be found in Belgium, and we would like our children to grow up in exactly this type of environment. I have said it many times before, but I will say it again – our move to Poland was like returning to Europe to us. My Belgian homeland has long ceased to be a real Europe. I very much hope that Poland will remain such a true Europe and that it will not share the fate of the countries of the old Union.
*What you have just said would probably be considered heresy in liberal and left-wing circles in the West. Poland is accused by the European Commission of violating the rule of law, and in many Western European media, Warsaw is synonymous with a terrible regime.
I am not proficient enough in matters relating to law or judicial reform to express myself competently on certain subjects, but from my observations to date I can only say that what has been implemented in Poland had already been introduced in other European countries. With a certain significant difference, however. There, it was done by politically correct elites. It turns out that it is irrelevant what type of reforms are implemented, but who is behind them, and if it is the conservative government, then any changes are considered to be violations. This is a typical example of double standards. The European Union did not interfere in Spanish affairs on the wave of the Catalan events, Brussels simply decided that these were internal affairs of that country. When the “yellow vests” protests were being pacified in France, Brussels kept silent. When the authorities in Germany changed the electoral law in Berlin-Brandenburg, silence prevailed. Meanwhile, Poland is receiving warnings and is presented in an unfavourable light in the media – the press in Belgium portrays Poland as a state which is almost Fascist. When Poland or Hungary are placed on an equal footing with Putin’s Russia, President Erdogan's Turkey or communist China, it is extremely difficult to make any comments. This is also because the media in Poland are much more diverse than the Western media, where everything is subservient to the ideology of political correctness. I see greater freedom of speech in Poland, greater diversity in terms of the broadcasted message; there are liberal, left-wing and conservative media, and everyone has the opportunity to express their opinion. The media in the West present a uniform message, and rarely something escapes the framework of political correctness. This causes groups of people to live with a sense of exclusion and without any media representation, which also leads to them becoming radicalised.
*They say it’s the Poles who are getting radicalised...
This is what the media in Western Europe say. I checked it myself, and I can’t confirm it. Every year, for example, the Belgian or German press refers to the marches held on 11 November as “fascist marches”. Last year, I decided to see for myself how dangerous these marches are. I went with my son, and as soon as I got into the metro I could observe many parents with children, and lots of flags in national colours. I thought to myself that all these families with children did not look like fascists, but like non-violent people who, in a joyful atmosphere, came to celebrate a very important day for the history of their country. The participants also included members of the clergy, war veterans, representatives of the Jewish minority, and a great number of young people who decided to celebrate this national holiday in a patriotic, rather than nationalistic atmosphere. I am Belgian, and there is no such thing as national pride in my country. Here, seeing all those Poles proud of their country’s history made an incredible impression on me.
Text was published in Nowe Państwo 4/2019