European policies are today driven by fear of the future…
Therese Kaufmann: Martin Simecka, you once said that the biggest political moment for Slovakia was not 1989 but 1998, referring to a moment in Slovakian political history when the nationalist authoritarian government of Vladimir Meciar fell. You have also said that this political change was the result of a combined effort of many different groups in Slovak society: intellectuals, NGOs, media, politicians and diplomats. What is necessary for political transformation? Can Europe learn something from the Slovakian experience?
Martin Simecka: Sometimes I feel like an expert not on integration but on disintegration. I was part of the movement that brought about the disintegration of the communist empire in 1989; then I was a very sad witness to the disintegration of Czechoslovakia in 1992; and then again of a much happier event, the disintegration of Meciar’s authoritarian regime in 1998. What I have learned from all this is that it’s all about ideas. The communist system collapsed because it no longer had an idea of its own future. Czechoslovakia dissolved because it didn’t believe in its own future. Meciar fell because society believed in ideas that were stronger and more powerful than that of his regime. In 1998 it was not only about getting rid of Meciar, it was also about becoming a part of the European Union. There was a vision for the country.
The current problem with the EU has to do with ideas. The idea of European integration has been driven by the past; by the horrors of WWII, by the Holocaust, by a long history of conflict. Today, the idea of the EU is instead driven by the future – but in a bad sense. If previously it was fear of repeating the past that pushed European integration forward and furthered peace and prosperity, today European policies are driven by fear of the future. We are afraid of increasing migration, of the consequences of the financial crisis. The future is not something that we believe in; we are afraid of it.
In 1990, when I saw the first nationalists marching on the streets of Bratislava, calling for an independent Slovakia – it was just a few months after the Velvet Revolution – I predicted that Czechoslovakia would fall apart. No one believed me at the time; it was regarded as impossible that a country that survived fifty years of communist rule would split up. But the impossible happened within two years. I have the same feeling now. The collapse of the European Union is possible. I hope that I am wrong, but the signs are there.
As a writer I see these signs in the language and in the culture of debate. In the early 1990s there was a fierce debate in Czechoslovakia between what could be called “nationalists” and “federalists”, between those who wanted the country to split and those who didn’t. And it was the former who won the battle of ideas. Their idea was simple and powerful: we want our own nation, we want to live in our own, independent state. The federalists, on the other hand, were described as defending something artificial and bureaucratic, something centralist and undemocratic – Prague was the symbol of all this. They were accused of having lost touch with the people in both parts of the country. In fact, it was impossible for the federalists to defend themselves, since the language that developed made them the bad guys by default.
Today, you hear exactly the same arguments about Europe. The Eurosceptics describe Brussels as an undemocratic and bureaucratic centre of power that has no legitimacy. When even a declaredly Europhile outlet like the EUobserver adopts Stalinist vocabulary to describe the institutions of the EU, you know the mood is bad. The word “troika” is being used to denote the trio of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund that together have prescribed austerity measures in Greece and Portugal. It’s difficult to find a more negatively loaded term. During the Stalinist terror, “troika” described the three people from NKVD that arrested and executed Soviet citizens, an instrument of political repression. This word is now used for representatives of European institutions!
This is only one example of how language is used and abused – and there is no defence against that. President Vaclav Klaus in Prague – meanwhile one of the most Eurosceptic places in Europe – responds to Tunisian migrants arrival in Italy by calling Schengen “a bad idea from the start”. Prime minister Petr Necas uses the term “Debt Union” to describe the EU. You can’t argue against such statements because they are so simple. Language goes on and on, and those who defend the European idea have an almost impossible task.