Timothy Garton Ash: ‘If Trump wins, I see a major danger that Europe will divide rather than unite’

The professor of European studies discusses the risks facing the EU, the rise of the far right and why liberals need to defend a more radical liberalism

Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash, at the Ramón Areces Foundation, in Madrid, on July 3.Samuel Sánchez
Andrea Rizzi

Europe is facing a turbulent time as it battles with the internal rise of far-right forces, Russian imperialism and the threat of Donald Trump returning to power. Timothy Garton Ash, 68, professor of European studies at the University of Oxford and author of several books on the continent — including Homelands: A Personal History of Europe ―, addresses these and other questions in an interview given in Madrid at the headquarters of the Ramón Areces Foundation, where he was preparing to give a conference. During the conversation, he warns of “the danger that Europe will divide instead of unite if Trump wins,” arguing that several EU leaders will try to ingratiate themselves with the tycoon instead of focusing on strengthening EU integration.

Question. A far-right and populist wave is sweeping through Western democracies. What went wrong to allow this to happen?

Answer. Many, many people in our societies are unhappy with the world we liberals have built. That’s the starting point. And shockingly, it’s a lot of young people, not just older people who are nostalgic for something, a past that maybe never existed. I think there are two big areas. On the one hand, things related to community and identity. The classic phrase is: “I don’t know my own country anymore.” And that’s a mixture of globalization, multiculturalism, immigration, globalized capitalism. The other packet of concerns is what I would call solidarity and equality. People feel that the basic contract that the European state had with its citizens, which involved a minimum of solidarity and equality, you could buy a house, you had a job, you had decent education, you had a police force that by and large protected you, that sort of package. And if you look at the populist appeals, it always plays on those two keyboards.

Q. Steve Bannon recently told David Brooks, in The New York Times, that in his opinion, “the ruling elites of the West are more and more detached from the lived experience of their people.”

A. There’s an element of it, except that the people who lead the populists are themselves from the elites, as we know. Donald Trump is a millionaire. But of course there is some truth in that. For example, the left liberal ideal was that half our kids should go to university. We’ve achieved that. Unintended consequence: we’ve split our societies down the middle. Half the society has higher education, speaks languages, loves traveling around Europe, lives in big cities, embraces multiculturalism and globalization. The other half doesn’t. Secondly, and in addition, our political classes almost entirely come from the former half. Fifty years ago, you would have people from the working class who would be leading figures in politics. Now you have this sense of a detached elite in charge. Then the populist comes along. And even though they themselves went to university, Wharton Business School in the case of Trump, they manage to convey the feeling that they’re someone like us. There was an interesting study of Donald Trump’s language, which showed that 10 years ago his language had a typical sophistication of a Wharton Business School graduate. Then he dumbed it down. And that’s very effective politically.

Q. You mentioned the issue of solidarity and equality. If we think about France, we see a country that has a lot of tax revenue, that has powerful public services. It is not a country that neglects its citizens.

A. I would slightly disagree. If you live in peripheral France, then the state does not reach you well. You don’t have good bus services, you don’t have great health services and so on. That’s what people feel. And National Rally (RN) politicians really focus on these basic socioeconomic concerns, about housing, the cost of living, medical care. My conclusion, and I feel this very strongly, is that if we are to defend liberalism in the broadest sense, we need to be much more radical in our liberalism. Liberals were meant to be good at doing their job. Liberals were the people who said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” So why don’t we build enough houses? Let’s get on with it. Let’s recognize that the market alone is never going to build enough affordable housing. Multinational companies are paying less taxes than many ordinary citizens. So I think there’s a real conclusion there, which is that we need a more radical liberalism, by which I don’t mean more free market. I mean more enabling each and every member of our society to have an equal chance of being the author of their own lives, which is the heart of true liberalism.

Q. Why have the left not been successful in intercepting this unrest linked to the question of solidarity and equality?

A. One of the things that has happened to the center-left parties is that they’ve got remarkably closer to the business community, and particularly to financial services. And the big mistake that we liberals made for 30, 40 years was talking about the international community. We talked about Europe, but we left talking about the nation to the right. So we have to reclaim the nation, but in a civic, liberal way. We have to take the best from the left and the right. From the conservative tradition, we have to understand that people are attached to the community, to tradition, to what is. And from the left, we need to take some of the basic ideas about equality of opportunity, what Ralf Dahrendorf called the common floor, basic housing, healthcare, education, so that you have an equal opportunity and an equal start in life.

Timothy Garton
The writer and professor Timothy Garton Ash, at the Ramón Areces Foundation in Madrid. Samuel Sánchez

Q. What are your thoughts on Keir Starmer, the leader of the U.K. Labour Party?

A. Starmer has a great slogan: make Britain serious again. And I like that very much. It will become a serious country. He is a serious politician with a serious cabinet. He’s run things. And so I think the country will become serious again. That’s point number one. Point number two, they have some good ideas, although, in the direction we’ve been talking about, the trouble is that we have a national debt that is close to 100% and sluggish growth. So there’s not much money to play with. Number three, there will be an attempt to reset relations with Europe. First, in security policy. So I look forward to a serious country that seeks a reset with Europe.

Q. And if you think about the Tories, do you think they will take a path towards pragmatism and moderation or, with Nigel Farage still on the rise, will they opt to push back by embracing populism and extremism?

A. I would bet on the latter. I don’t belong to any party, but I think the positive side of this is that the Labour Party — a serious party of government committed to reforming the country and resetting the relationship with continental Europe — can potentially have a 10-year term. And that means that in the second term it will be able to take more decisive steps in relation to the EU, such as the customs union.

Q. If we look at the EU, in Parliament, the pro-European majority has more or less resisted. The problem is in the European Council, with the radical right in power in many countries. And if the extreme right manages to govern in France...

A. But even without Bardella [Jordan, leader of the RN], there will be a Dutch government with an ultra-dominant party, there is Giorgia Meloni, there is obviously pressure from the AfD in Germany. And, although it now seems likely that France will have a hung Parliament without an absolute majority, even without a Prime Minister Jordan Bardella, the RN will nevertheless be the largest party. The last thing we need in this situation is complacency because when push comes to shove, it is still the member states that make the difference and the situation does not look good in quite a few of the major European member states. In addition to which, if in November, we have Donald Trump 2.0, I am sure you’re going to get the party of Trump inside the European Union. Viktor Orbán number one, Robert Fico number two, but also other leaders, also Marine Le Pen and I would bet Giorgia Meloni, who has been very cooperative up to now, but is looking at the power relations inside the West. And so instead of uniting in response to a Trump presidency, I see a major danger that Europe will divide rather than unite.

Q. You just mentioned Trump. Do you think that if he wins, he will abruptly cut off support for Ukraine? And if so, is Europe prepared to support Kyiv by itself?

A. I think the future of Europe depends on this. And I think we’re not doing enough. I was there just over a month ago. I’ve never felt the country to be more exhausted, more traumatized, more pessimistic, more divided. And the military experts are really worried about the trajectory. So I think we Europeans should already be preparing for the eventuality of a Trump presidency, which means more defense industrial production, more ammunition, more arms supplies, more training, so that we are in a position to sustain Ukraine, even if Trump pulls the rug. Are we doing it? Not enough. Has it become more likely since the European election and the French election? No, it’s become less likely because who was the most eloquent and boldest advocate for this amongst the major European leaders? It was Emmanuel Macron, but then Macron will have his hands tied, whatever the outcome on July 7. So I’m extremely worried about it. As for what Trump does, I think there is a 90% chance he’s going to do what he said he’s going to do and try and make a deal, essentially sacrificing Ukraine.

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