‘There is an unprecedented crisis because of the war. The answer is a powerful Europe’
The French president and the Spanish writer Javier Cercas address in this conversation the main problems tormenting the continent, such as the rise of populism, the consequences of war or the loss of identity due to the economic crisis
In the Elysée Palace, on Monday, January 18, President Emmanuel Macron of France sat down with Spanish writer Javier Cercas.
EL PAÍS brought Cercas – a prominent novelist who has dissected the dynamics of power and history like few others – and Macron – perhaps the most intellectual of today’s European leaders – together to have a conversation before the Spanish-French summit convenes in Barcelona later this week.
Macron admires the work of Cercas; meanwhile, Cercas has always been curious about the young politician, who, in the midst of a populist and nationalist wind which was sweeping his continent, managed to come to power in 2017 while brandishing the European flag.
This following conversation took place in Macron’s private office.
Javier Cercas. The big problem for me, today – in Europe, in the West – is the struggle between “national-populism” and democracy. I think that “national-populism” became especially visible – dangerously visible – in 2008, during the financial crisis, which was a terrible time for Spain, for all of Europe and the West. This crisis was only comparable, perhaps, to that of 1929.
The Great Depression brought about the rise to power or the consolidation of fascism, of totalitarianism throughout Europe. Perhaps future historians will understand that, just as World War II was the culmination of the 1929 crisis, the war in Ukraine is the culmination of the 2008 crisis.
Putin has supported this “national populism” everywhere. He was important for the arrival of Donald Trump to power, for Brexit and for separatism in Catalonia. He supported Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy. Today, I deeply believe that Ukrainians are fighting for our values – for the values of Europe – like the Spanish Republicans in 1936.
Back then, unfortunately, democratic Europe abandoned Spain, and the result was a total disaster. Today, fortunately, Europe is helping Ukraine. But the Spanish Civil War was the prologue to World War II, its first act. And I think that many of us today are wondering if the war in Ukraine will be the prologue of something else. Do you agree?
Emmanuel Macron. I would distinguish the war in Ukraine from the rest of what is happening in European societies, because – as you said – the response to the war has demonstrated the honor, the pride and the interest of the Europeans in supporting the Ukrainians. [Europeans] are not only defending their values, but also the principles of international law: national sovereignty and the integrity of borders. Without this, there can be no peace.
I believe that the trigger for this war is a phenomenon fundamentally driven by the crisis that the Russian model is experiencing. Russia – as a power – is searching for itself and looking for a destiny. I don’t believe that this war has its origins in Europe.
The Russians are a great people – Russia is a great nation, territorially and historically. The ability to survive the period after 1991 (when communism collapsed) has been very difficult. When you look at a people geographically settled in between so many borders – who have been shaken by different forms of terrorism, whose demography is declining – you can see that their future is at stake.
Russia has made a choice…it is definitely the choice made by President Putin and those who accompany him, although I don’t know whether it was the choice of the Russian people. But this choice [to wage war in Ukraine] is, in some way, an answer to questions about what Russia is today, what its destiny is. Russia has chosen to answer that question by saying that it has an imperialist destiny, which consists of waging a colonial war against neighboring powers over which it believes it has rights.
So, I believe that the origin of this war is an existential crisis within Russia. And as we fight for Ukraine, as we deliver equipment to Kyiv and sanction Russia, we must keep this in mind and ask ourselves this question too, because there will be no lasting peace if we do not bring our part of the answer to this question..
I also believe that part of the crisis that Europe is experiencing, its division on certain issues, stems from the fact that, collectively, we have not fully digested the period after the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The decision was made to enlarge Europe – and it was believed that all the problems had been solved. And I basically feel that, in many European societies, there is a return of history.
Many societies that lived for decades under the Soviet yoke – with all that this implied in terms of cultural transformation, political repression and different relationships with freedom, have experienced the crisis in a different way in our globalized world. We have to learn how to listen to them.
That is why I am always very prudent. I fight against extremism, I fight against demagoguery. But I also try to respect those who think that there are important things to be done at the national level. I have been nationally elected, and I believe in patriotism, which is not nationalism. Patriotism is love of country. Nationalism is hatred of the other – to think that loving yourself means hurting your neighbor. But the homeland and the nation are important notions to many countries that resisted the Soviet Union through these concepts. And so our responsibility is not to oppose Europe to the national level, it is to continue to know how to weave them by showing that they feed on each other.
Our democracies are experiencing a crisis that is not only linked to Europe. Just look at the United States of America, and all the democracies that are experiencing a kind of fatigue, a loss of collective reference points. First, there’s a crisis within the global open financial capitalist system. This system is experiencing a deep crisis, because, by acquiring capital, it has caused inequalities to skyrocket. It has had positive results too, because it has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty – many more than all other previous systems, especially in the poorest countries. But it has created – especially in the last 20 years – many inequalities in our societies. Therefore, our democratic system is in crisis, because it no longer spontaneously generates progress for all – once again, it creates inequalities between social classes.
The second issue is that our current system also doesn’t provide climate solutions. And that poses a deep crisis of conscience for our democracies. And a third matter is that technological transformation has shaken the agora. A democracy is a place where there is a public square, where we talk about issues in common, where we build frames of reference to make decisions together.
But there has to be some common ground. There must be people to animate this debate, agreements and disagreements within an established framework. And our societies today, I wouldn’t say that they are turning in on themselves, but they are exploding by turning in on themselves. There is a form of spasm there. Our societies are much more open than ever thanks to technology… but because of social media, people are also open to things that are completely decontextualized and at the same time they withdraw into affinity groups that are those of friends who will follow me on Facebook or Instagram or of my followers on Twitter and which are basically elective affinities that are a bit closed and dangerous. And so this combination of an infinitely large space and a narrowing personal world has broken this common framework, whether it be national or European. And so we have these multi-crises within our democracy. When there are so many crises, demagoguery and extremes fare better, because they have simple messages. But the core of their message, when I try to decipher it, is what? It’s a promise to take back control. And I think we need to regain control in this world that seems to be becoming completely liquid.
J. C. For me, the fundamental problem with creating a united Europe is that it remains an elitist project. It’s not what it should be: a popular project. I’m afraid that people today don’t feel that Europe is essential to their lives.
E. M. Can I contest that point?
J. C. Of course!
E. M. Europe is a project that has been structured through popular projects. The euro is a popular project – the idea of going from one country to another and having the same currency. If inflation hasn’t skyrocketed, if there hasn’t been a crisis, it’s because of the euro. The euro is very strong, it’s popular. Who does it protect? The richest people always managed during hard times… the middle and popular classes are the ones who lose the most from financial disorganization. The euro protects them.
Even the extremists in France who once promised to leave the Eurozone are no longer saying it, because this message was making people afraid. In 2017, when I launched this debate in France, the middle and working classes were clear that they didn’t want to abandon the euro. I have not been doing politics for a long time. I’m not sure I’m doing politics, I’m doing democratic exercises and I believe in my country and in the continent. My starting point is an opposition to demagoguery. People are intelligent: they know that the euro is good for them. [The student exchange program] Erasmus is good for all kinds of youths. And this Europe that has opened up – with freedom of movement that allows you to travel and trade – is extraordinary. This is a very solid project. And now, in this geopolitical moment, saying that Europe has brought us vaccines, that is something that has touched everyone as well, including the most modest people in our societies. So we simply have to explain it well. The big flaw is that national leaders tend to say: ‘You have this thanks to me’. But when there is a problem or a blockage, they say ‘It’s Europe’s fault.’
What are the challenges in our societies? What are the fears? People say: ‘There’s the war.’ But Europe is also a lever to protect us. We have our national armies, but it’s at the European level where we have the ability to act together if we are attacked by a great power. This is why the joint European defense is so popular. This is the main mission of a state: to protect.
J. C. Mr. President, when you arrived at the Élysée, many things about you surprised me – as they surprised many people. Your youth. The importance of literature in your life. Your literary vision of politics. But, above all, what caught my attention was a speech you gave in Athens, Greece, in September of 2017 – a speech that was enthusiastic about Europe, with an ambition that I hadn’t heard in a long time. You’re going to Spain soon, which is still a very European country. The European Union is, in my opinion, the only reasonable utopia that we Europeans have invented. We have invented many lethal utopias… but a united Europe is, as far as I know, the only reasonable one.
I really like France, but I don’t see any enthusiasm about the European project in France. I see skepticism towards Europe on both the left and right. This worries me: we have resigned ourselves to a Europe without the United Kingdom… but a Europe without France is impossible. In the UK, I haven’t found a single intellectual who is in favor of Brexit. On the other hand, in France, there are important literary writers and essayists – Michel Houellebecq, Annie Ernaux, Michel Onfray – who do not believe in Europe. They have a very nationalistic way of thinking, very focused on France. As for Le Pen and Mélenchon [leader of the leftist populist party La France Insoumise], perhaps they’re less eurosceptic today after Brexit, but they don’t truly believe in Europe. My question is: after you leave office, what will follow?
E. M. The elite can think one thing, but it is the people who vote and decide. The truth is that French men and women twice elected someone whose political DNA is the defense of Europe. That says something about our country in a profound way. Then, I look at the polls. People adhere to the European idea. And skepticism has decreased a lot in all of our countries. The French have seen that Europe was one of the solutions during the pandemic. It provided vaccines, as we did not produce vaccines on our soil at the beginning.
When you look at things, even the politicians who had competing projects with the one I was able to carry, they have changed in a few years. Ms. Le Pen of whom you speak, she proposed leaving Europe and the euro. The 2017 debate – before the second round of the presidential elections – focused entirely on the European question. Five years later [when Macron defeated Le Pen for the second time to secure another five-year term], that same political leader of the same political party was no longer talking about it. Instead she said that Europe must be changed through its treaties. I said, Great!
What have we done for the past five years? We have changed Europe. No one thought that we could achieve an alliance with Germany in the summer of 2020 and come up with a recovery plan that more than doubled the European budget and allowed us to issue debt collectively. But of course, all of our societies – at the end of the pandemic and in the middle of a war – are living through moments of great anguish and destabilization, of disorientation, which should incite us all to a great deal of humility and intranquillity, to use the phrase that I believe you also like, because everyone is a little disoriented.
But we should not have this concern. Simply put, the European idea and Europe is never a given. It is a permanent battle.
I heard your cautiously use the word federalism. I don’t think that the European adventure fits into any box. We have traditions, including popular, cultural traditions, which are sometimes a national brake. And the debate, the permanent dialectic that there is between the Spanish question and the Catalan question, for example, demonstrates it very well. We have these debates ourselves: we have seen it with the [French] Basque Country, with the overseas territories, but this cultural fact is there. National sovereignty is structuring for Europe. It is there, very strong, but we have built together, after World War II, a political construction that was no longer hegemonic. And this represents the treasure of what Europe is. In the past, Europe had always been considered – it was the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk who described it very well – as a kind of reinvention of the Roman Empire. That is, with a center and a periphery; the domination of one over the others. You could see this in the empires of Napoleon and Bismarck or in Nazi Germany. We abandoned this idea. We said: “We are all the same, there are no small or large countries, there are no states on the periphery or in the center. There are several capitals in Europe… but we are all the same.”
This is a fundamental point. This is what has brought peace, prosperity and freedom to this continent. And this treasure must be appreciated, especially now, in times of war and economic crisis and reinvention. We must not give the impression that some people are entitled to fare better than others.
So, afterwards, how will our Europe evolve? I think that we have an unprecedented crisis, since we have a war that is returning to the continent. We have an economic model that has been profoundly shaken by the consequences of this direct and indirect war, and deep down, an economic world that is structured in the US-China polarity, which is saying to Europe: ‘Do you have your own path to follow, which is a path of freedom, of belief in the market and at the same time of equality and solidarity? Or are you the one who wants to become the vassal of one of the two?’ This question has not yet been fully answered. I believe that the answer lies in a sovereign Europe in economic, technological and military terms, in other words, a Europe that is truly a power. We must never forget the exceptional character of what we have been doing for the last few decades, its great fragility, and the fact that we are condemned to always be the refounders of this Europe, because if we let it rest, it will fall or it will divide into national egoisms and withdrawals. Just look around Europe. Nevertheless, I am optimistic because I think everyone is seeing that Europe is the right scale on which to respond to the concerns of the moment and the challenges of our times. Faced with the challenges of digital technology, climate and geopolitics, the European continent is the right level. It is not our countries.
J. C. Mr. President, pardon me for returning to the topic of Ukraine. You have spoken a lot with Vladimir Putin in the past. I’m not sure if you have spoken to him lately?
E. M. No, not in the past few weeks.
J. C. You once said something that sparked a lot of controversy. You said that we shouldn’t humiliate the Russians. Not Putin, but the Russian people. I understand your point of view. I am thinking about [the treaty of] Versailles… the humiliation that the Germans faced at the end of World War I was, in a way, the start of World War II. When you spoke about not humiliating the Russians, were you making a historical reference to this?
E. M. Yes, absolutely. You can’t change the people and you can’t move the geography. You can fight against leaders, ideas, projects. We are doing so resolutely, without ambiguity. But afterwards, it is necessary to know, in the long history that is lived alongside people who are your neighbors, to find ways and means to build peace. But this will happen in due course. When people were saying that “we must bring Russia to its knees” at the start of the war, that’s when I spoke about not humiliating people. I have shown – with gestures and deeds – that France stands alongside the Ukrainian resistance. But we must always maintain the ability to dialogue.
J. C. I belong to the first European generation that has not experienced a war between the great powers. I recently read a text by Benjamin Constant written in 1815, the year of Waterloo, where he said: war in Europe is very difficult and almost impossible, the French want to rest, trade is essential, war does not work anymore. He was somewhat right, because after the Napoleonic convulsions, there was a century of some stability. I know that you’ve read Stefan Zweig’s memoirs – he wrote that, “from 1913-1914, we Europeans thought that talking about war between the great powers was like talking about witches, about ghosts. And in 1914, boom!” That’s why I’m worried about that possibility.
E. M. I share the same concern.
J. C. History is unpredictable.
E. M. Where you are right is that the mechanics of war have something that can seem inexorable when you look at them closely. I don’t think we’re at that point yet, though. Many Europeans – and we must also pay tribute to the Americans – had great clarity and strength to support Ukraine from day one. There is also great clarity in our desire for the war not to spread.
And so that’s why we’ve never had any talk of verbal escalation or anything like that. I think it’s very important to maintain that position, informed by experience. The big difficulty is when everything seems to be falling apart and that’s when everything becomes possible, including the worst-case scenarios. And we are in a period of turmoil that may give you that feeling and feed your concern. I am always vigilant and concerned. Or uneasy in any case. Because we are at a time in our history when so many questions are piling up that the ability to answer them is... It has to be tangible for our compatriots, and as long as it is not tangible, we are leaving it to the extremists or demagogues to propose something else and, as a result, to feed this kind of deadly cascade, which can lead to war. There is something we’ve mentioned: the relationship to culture, to origins, to national identity and how some people feel uprooted in this Europe. And I think that we cannot remain blind to the fact that many Europeans feel a little uprooted in this Europe, in fact not even in Europe, but within our nations. They have the feeling that the cultural and mental patterns in which they grew up are being shaken up from all sides and that, basically, modernity is an absolute uprooting. And we have to respond to that, that is, we have to accept that there are intangibles and invariables: things that are stable. And we have to return meaning to our story. And I think that this is our job for those of us who believe in Europe. We must make this adventure more popular, intelligible, tangible, honest with our compatriots. But it must be reinscribed in the great narrative in which we are caught up. I’ve said this about France before, and it works for Europe as well: identity, which is a real subject, is not a fixed concept. There is a French identity in which there are invariables, there are realities. To those who say that Europe or France do not have a strong Christian component in their identity: yes, there is a Christian component. Is it reduced to just that? No, because there have been many tributaries. Many other monotheisms have contributed to our Europe. And the philosophies too, which did not believe in it, have contributed to it and have structured it. And that’s it: it’s a narrative, it’s a great story. And this story requires clarifying the great plot and the great characters… but, above all, recognizing each and every story.
What makes people unhappy is a lack of recognition – be it in the realm of the financial, the symbolic, or the narrative. The day when, in Hungary’s countryside, in the large cities of Poland, in Spain’s Extremadura region or in my own native Picardy, people can feel that others can understand where they come from, who they are… when we can understand our differences, but also not become entirely identical… that’s when we will have a happy Europe. I very much believe in this story.
J. C. Me too.
E. M. We need to imagine a happy Cervantes – or a happy Cercas – writing this story. I say this very seriously. That’s what needs to be done, you need to write it, that’s what great novels are all about.
J. C. I agree.
E. M. It is not a memorandum, a directive or a law that makes a story. On Thursday, we’re going to talk about all this... I was the first president during my term of office to visit all 27 countries [in the EU], to go to the capitals, sometimes to other cities as well. This is very important for me. That’s what Europe is, it is this dialogue of 27. It is not a center, and we do not say Europe is Brussels, end of story. Among these 27, there are three countries with which we will have a bilateral relationship structured by a treaty. There is Germany. Next Sunday we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of this treaty. Italy, with whom we made a treaty a few semesters ago. And now there will be Spain as well. And for me, what we are going to do in Barcelona is very important because, basically, the linguistic, cultural and economic life was far ahead of the political structuring. We have a real friendship with [Spain’s PM] Pedro Sánchez and we will really provide a framework and build together something very important at the bilateral level, which is very important for Europe. Barcelona will be a chapter in this great story, an important chapter.
J. C. Thank you very much, Mr. President.
E. M. Thank you. I’ll see you in Barcelona.
J. C. Absolutely.
E. M. We’ll have more time then to talk about literature. That’s the only thing that really matters.
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