In early March, European leaders were uniformly reported to have sighed in relief when the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte defeated Geert Wilders, one of the continent’s most vocal opponents of immigration and European integration, in the country’s parliamentary elections. With Rutte’s victory and Wilders’ defeat, it seemed to many that the so-called wave of populism spreading throughout the continent might be coming to an end. Those hopes were sustained in late April when, in the latest balloting for the presidency of France, the anti-immigration and anti-EU candidate Marine Le Pen came in behind the centrist front-runner Emmanuel Macron; most forecasters are (cautiously) predicting an easy victory for Macron in the final May 7 runoff, and, buoyed by the results so far, are hoping for a similar outcome in September’s federal elections in Germany.
Is, however, the recent upsurge of European populism a mere blip on the historical horizon, or are today’s expressions of relief themselves a passing phenomenon in the unfolding of a fundamental restructuring of Europe’s political and moral order? This question is explored by James Kirchick in The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age.
According to Kirchick, a prolific political journalist and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, the rise of populist, anti-democratic, and sometimes authoritarian leaders across the political spectrum is the most distressing of the myriad problems besetting today’s Europe. In seven of his eight chapters, guided by this conviction, he addresses one by one the populist challenges facing particular nation-states.
The End of Europe opens with Russia’s emergence as a revanchist power, pressing territorial claims in Crimea and elsewhere. From Russia Kirchick then moves on to Hungary, looking at Holocaust denial and other forms of historical revisionism promoted by the nationalist government of Viktor Orbán. Later chapters examine the leaders of the Greek ruling party Syriza in the aftermath of the 2009-10 debt crisis and Britain in light of Brexit, the latter in his view being as disastrous an economic policy on the right as was Syriza’s on the left. When it comes to France, Kirchick examines the country’s condition through the lens of its increasingly widespread anti-Semitism. As for Germany, he argues that its image as a faithful American ally is something of an illusion, since its relations with America and the West since World War II have not always been as stable or secure as we like to imagine. Finally, he arrives full circle at Ukraine since the Russian invasion of 2014, a situation he compares to that of Berlin during the cold war: a site of potential confrontation between Russian resolve and whatever fighting spirit still remains in Western institutions like the EU or NATO.
In the middle of these discrete discussions is a separate chapter on the EU as a whole. If the continent’s “manifold crises” can be summarized under one heading at all, writes Kirchick, it is not so much the rise of populism but rather the “crisis of liberalism.” It is because liberalism has proved incapable of confronting Europe’s “slew of problems” that, he contends, Europeans have begun turning en masse to “the siren calls of firebrands” who “vow the restoration of a prelapsarian era that supposedly existed before European integration, when life was easier, cheaper, and safe.” But this, in his judgment, is a temporary aberration that can still be reset. By renewing its “muscular liberal center,” Europe can also regain its “sense of purpose.”
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At least to this reader, the best parts of The End of Europe are to be found in its discussion of immigration and of anti-Semitism. Ostensibly, these passages focus in each case on Europe’s relation to its minorities, but they actually have much to teach about European culture at large.
Drawing on a wealth of statistics and headlines from the European press, Kirchick shows that the decision to allow hundreds of thousands of migrants into the continent displayed not only a lack of foresight—that much was obvious—but also, and perhaps above all, incompetence. Delving into decisions taken by the governments of Sweden and Germany, the two countries that opened their doors most widely, he demonstrates that the crisis of 2015-16 was triggered primarily by bureaucrats who saw the problem as one of inadequate resources (in the form of housing and beds), with little consideration given to the demographic and cultural problems attendant upon the arrival in Europe of a massive population largely ignorant of Western norms or traditions.
In addition to the social and political aspects of the problem, Kirchick draws attention to the effect of the migrant influx on the security and personal safety of ordinary Europeans, especially women and Jews. Using as his pivot the events, by now familiar, of New Year’s Eve 2015—when, in the city of Cologne, a crowd of about 1,000 men of Arab and North African origin perpetrated one of the largest coordinated cases of sexual assault in history—he evokes the atmosphere of terror that seized a continent still priding itself on its openness and freedom. And yet, he shows, these events were utterly predictable.
Contrary to media portrayals of the 1.5 million asylum seekers in 2015, portrayals that routinely emphasized the heartstring-tugging presence among them of many women and children, 73 percent of the migrant population was in fact male: a gender disproportion, Kirchick is quick to note, far greater than that in China, the world’s most sex-imbalanced country. He also cites the vice-president of the European Commission, who in January 2016 testified that 60 percent of these supposed asylum seekers were in fact not fleeing war and persecution but hoping to advance themselves economically. Europe, in brief, walked into its quandary with its eyes open.
Then there is Kirchick’s fierce objection to the knee-jerk equation of anti-Semitism with its alleged counterpart, “Islamophobia.” “The sad fact,” he writes, “is that in Europe today, there’s only one group of people who are regularly killed on the basis of their identity”—and that group is not Muslims. “Yet,” he continues, whenever “Jews (or gentiles) are attacked or slain in the name of Islam, right-thinking Europeans immediately warn against ‘Islamophobic backlash.’” The real backlash, he remarks mordantly, is to be discerned in the mass exodus of Jews, especially from France, which at its peak (so far) saw over 8,000 Jews emigrating to Israel in 2015.
If these are among the book’s high points, regrettably missing is a serious discussion of what could be called Europe’s crisis of culture. Are Europeans, who have been enjoying a lengthy period of relative security, nonetheless experiencing a collective sense of purposelessness—a sense inextricable from the decades-long demise of religious observance? Kirchick touches on this matter briefly on several occasions, but does not allot it the weight it merits. In one section, for example, he alludes to the issue of the West’s “moral and spiritual vacuum,” but does so only in passing and in the context of the attraction exercised by militant Islam on young immigrants in search of an “anchor of identity.” That image comes from Submission, a novel by the French iconoclast Michel Houllebecq, but what Kirchick does not take into account is that young Muslims are hardly the only ones in need of such an anchor. Indeed, it would have helped him to explore more fully Houllebecq’s brilliant book, which addresses the crisis of Christianity much more than the identity issues of young Muslims.
Elsewhere, to cite a perhaps more important example, Kirchick discusses how Russia has emerged in recent years as a kind of mecca for European conservatives. Alarmed by the rise of sexual promiscuity, a culture of hedonism, and the erosion of community values, some leading European figures, Kirchick writes, are turning toward Moscow, which, in contrast to its Soviet-era self-image as the “society of the future,” promotes itself today as the vanguard of “‘traditional values’ against a deluge of irreligiousness, sexual decadence, and post-national ‘globalism.’” Kirchick is quick to condemn these pro-Moscow sentiments as reactionary, but seems reluctant to inquire into the cultural and ideological thirsts that may have given rise to them. As with his disinclination to ponder the crisis of European Christianity, he thereby misses an opportunity to question his confident judgment that “the end of Europe” can be checked or reversed by means of better liberal policies.
To a certain degree, Kirchick’s analysis can be said to suffer from a lack of empathy. An astute recorder of events and phenomena across Europe, he declines to view them as ordinary Europeans might. Recounting, for example, a conversation with “a senior official in the Czech foreign ministry” during the funeral of Vaclav Havel, Kirchick remarks that while “readers in many languages found in [the former Czech president and famed man of letters] a humane and humble soul who spoke to our better instincts,” his interlocutor disagreed, instead assailing Havel “for a ‘false universalism’ that seeks to ‘impose on others our idea of the ideal society.’” Could, however, the Czech official, however, have been expressing a sincere fear for the loss of Czech identity, a fear that might carry more weight in Czech society than does the opinion of an amorphous international audience? Kirchick does not pause to wonder.
On many occasions, indeed, Kirchick appears automatically to take as a symptom of decline anything that veers from what in his view ought to be the trajectory of a liberal society, represented more often than not in his pages by the European Union. This detracts from his ability to distinguish between phenomena like Brexit, on the one hand, and “Orbánism,” on the other. But do both really present an equivalent threat? Whatever may be said about post-Brexit Britain, it is still a functioning liberal democracy; the same cannot be said of Orbán’s Hungary.
Meanwhile, Kirchick’s top-down view of society, in which the actions of institutions and leaders are accorded greater importance than trends at the popular level, may account at once for his treatment of his book’s villains—the “dictators and demagogues” about whom he writes as if they fell upon Europeans from above rather than arising out of organic developments on the ground—and for his judgment that the current wave of “manifold crises” can be rolled back by simple reforms to those same institutions, thus allowing Europeans to return to the “relative utopia” that they enjoyed over the past seventy years. Despite his book’s title, in the final analysis Kirchick seems to believe that an improved set of liberal policies may still bring about a “renewal of the muscular liberal center.” He does not consider that such a renewal may be not only unfeasible but, for many Europeans, undesirable.