Europe as we have known it for over five decades has been a stable and prosperous place at peace with itself, famous for its museums, cafes, classical architecture, and graceful retirement from history. But today, it’s under assault. The greatest refugee crisis since World War II is overwhelming the continent, while Jews flee by the thousands. Populist parties so outrageous that they make their American counterparts seem like milquetoast centrists are winning or almost winning one election after another. One of them—Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz—has already transformed Hungary into an authoritarian state. Russian President Vladimir Putin is swaggering like a conquering warlord and winning applause for his exploits as far west as Great Britain. The European Union has already begun to unravel and could be replaced down the road by God only knows what as an aloof United Kingdom decides to go it alone while Europe circles the drain.
Journalist and author James Kirchick lived and worked in Europe for six years, and in his bracing first book, The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age, he dives deep into the continent’s turmoil. The cumulative effect is sobering and alarming, but also perversely comforting if misery truly loves company. The book makes it clear that America’s political crisis is part of a larger crisis of democratic liberalism and institutional legitimacy that stretches from Seattle to Athens, and Kirchick does his American readers an invaluable service by informing them, in a can’t-put-it-down style, that they aren’t going through this alone.
Connecting Europe’s seemingly disparate troubles is a continent-wide cratering of the political center and collapsing confidence in the liberal European idea. “In the wake of World War II,” Kirchick writes, “when Europe was divided, both the political left and right valued very highly what the West had and the East coveted: an environment of political and economic freedom, religious openness (even if it often shaded into religious indifference), and peace.” Western Europeans were far more dependent upon the military power of the Pax Americana than they liked to admit, but it paid off for all of us when the Soviet Union finally imploded, calcified communist police states withered away, and Europe’s eastern half rejoined the West.
But a unified liberal Europe only lasted a generation, and the Russian bear is no longer hibernating.
Michael is a lot more worried about Putin’s ambitions than I am, but then I don’t live in Eastern Europe, either. For my money, the far bigger worry is here:
Why is Europe’s political center collapsing? For a couple of reasons. Near-zero economic growth over ten years never does ruling parties any good. The European Union’s overbearing micromanagement, its notorious democratic deficit, and the entirely sensible belief almost everywhere that local democracy is better than distant bureaucracy are coupled with the near-refusal of mainstream parties to address these concerns. And to top it all off, mainstream parties both left and right have been jamming their fingers in their ears and socks in their voters’ mouths for years about immigration.
Xenophobia is stalking Europe—again—but at the same time, in fairness, all societies are strained when a massive number of newcomers show up at the same time, and not every person feeling that strain is by definition a bigot. So when German Chancellor Angela Merkel green-lit the entrance of a million Syrian refugees, that strain should have been as predictable as it was inevitable. How would you like to live in the village of Sumte—with a population of just 102—and be told by the government in Berlin that you can and will find room for 750 Syrian refugees?
And as Kirchick points out, when Merkel invited a million refugees into Germany, she effectively invited a million refugees into Europe’s entire Schengen Area without consulting any other head of state, let alone voters elsewhere in Europe.
“What made Merkel’s decision to open Europe’s gates to an untold number of Muslim migrants so problematic,” Kirchick writes, “is that the continent has done such a poor job integrating the Muslims who already live there.” Even the European-born children of immigrants tend to be thought of and treated as guests in Europe rather than permanent residents and citizens. The United States, like Canada, does a much better job assimilating immigrants than Europe does and it always will.
The real problem is not Europe’s (or our) failure to “assimilate” Muslims; the real problem is that they are unassimilable, being entirely uninterested in assimilating anyway. They prefer to cling absolutely to a pseudo-religious ideology wholly incompatible with freedom—not just alien to Western ideals of how a free and democratic society should properly order itself, but implacably hostile to them. That’s what renders Merkel’s near-incredible folly more than merely “problematic”—what it is, culturally, is suicidal.