A conversation with Claus Offe in Berlin

 The remark was anti-fascist, a sharp knife designed to cut through fantasies of European unification, by ideology or military force. It expressed equal contempt for the violence of European colonialism, which Camus knew well from his native Algeria, and for all forms of nationalism. “I love my country too much to be a nationalist” was his shorthand formula for casting doubt on the nationalist fetish of borders, nation state jurisdictions and pompous talk of the “essence” and “purity” of nations and national identity.

A generation later, this whole democratic way of thinking about a post-nationalist and diverse Europe is besieged by an assortment of menacing trends, Claus Offe explains over lunch during my recent visit to Berlin. A sage septuagenarian with a gift for no-nonsense political analysis, Offe is among Europe’s best-known public intellectuals. He specializes in straight talk. So I begin by asking him to summarise what’s going on in Europe

“Our times resemble the 1920s”, he replies. “We’re witnessing the accumulation of various crises that are rapidly putting the whole European project under tremendous pressure. Illiberal forces are on the rise. Middle classes are shrinking. There’s populist hatred of ‘the establishment’ and fascination with strong leaders. Europe is suffering multi-morbidity. Our problems, and the promises that are being broken, are now far greater than anything money could possibly buy, even if large sums of EU transfer funds were suddenly made available, and spent wisely, in a spirit of solidarity.”

Economic stagnation

An obvious source of the present European malaise is economic stagnation, which has now lasted nearly a decade. Offe recalls the work of the American economist Robert Gordon, who’s shown that in the history of modern capitalism, the median economic growth is less than 1% per annum, and who calculates that in the face of “headwinds”, such as a rapidly ageing population, soaring inequality and festering social ills, a new round of innovation-driven growth is highly improbable.

“Europe’s economic problems aren’t over”, Offe tells me. “Stagnation is combined with rising household, investor and public sector debt. Italy has an unstable banking system. Income and wealth inequality gaps are still widening. Product and process innovations that favour both labour and capital are in short supply. Unemployment stops millions of people from servicing their debts. And there’s a worrying new statistical category: young Europeans who are classified as NEET because they are ‘not in education, employment or training’.”

Europe’s macroeconomic situation has left a whole generation of young people who, not in employment, education or training (NEET), are struggling to get a foot on the ladder of life.

It’s said that bad luck comes in big bundles. Europeans are feeling the pinch of the proverb in this unfolding set of crises, he says. The social injustices and destabilizing effects of a stagnant economy are one thing.

There’s also the Putin factor. The military assertiveness of the Russian regime is spreading fear and division among the people of Poland and the Baltic states. It’s also undermined the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood Policy.

“The Russian occupation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine is destabilising the Ukraine state and producing military and international law conflicts that we’ve not seen, apart from the post-Yugoslav wars, since the end of World War Two.”

The Putin factor is spreading fear and division in Ukraine and the Baltic states. Sasha Maksymenko/flicker

Russian aggression compounds the swelling uncertainty and failure in other policy areas, Offe continues. It’s as if there’s a conspiracy of trends determined to bring ill fortune to Europe. He gives another example: the unhappy coincidence of sluggish growth and high unemployment with the escalating refugee crisis. The combination is proving to be “a real godsend for the populist right in Europe.”

Refugee crisis and populist trouble

Populist movements and parties, he says, are trying to stir up public trouble by stringing together the problems of stagnation, refugees, and threats of terrorism into a single story. He’s adamant that their simple-minded storytelling must be resisted. In this worsening European crisis, in matters of intellect and politics, recognizing the complexities of the multiple dynamics really matters.

Offe underscores the point by noting that Europe’s entanglement in the ongoing wars in Libya, Iraq and Syria, in its neighbouring regions, is among these multiple dynamics. Europe is at war. It’s been drawn into the devilish “confrontation between the two regional powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia” and the military rivalries of Russia, Turkey, and the USA, “each with its own and openly conflicting military agenda”.

The spread of IS-inspired jihadist “suicide missions and random killings of civilians” is another matter. He tells me that some acts of violence, including the December attack on the Christmas market in Berlin, are products of “administrative and police failure”. Contrary to the populists, most acts of violence are “home-grown”, he insists. “This violence has little or nothing directly to do with refugees. The discomforting truth is that the big majority of known attackers are citizens, and often natives, of EU member states, often with family roots in the Middle East and North African region.”

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