Timothy Snyder: Brexit Is Not Going to Lead to the End of the EU. It Will Lead to Some Kind of Different Europe
Timothy Snyder is an American historian who has been researching the tragic history of the Eastern Europe for many years. He equates Hitler’s Holocaust with Stalin’s repressions in terms of consequences for the peoples of this region.
Snyder diligently monitors modern day Ukraine and putinist Russia because he considers that many things which are happening here right now can repeat themselves in his native US.
Professor Snyder is our man on that side of the Altantics. He considers Ukraine to be the most interesting country in the modern day Europe with a huge potential and refuses to call the Revolution of Dignity ‘Ukraine’s last chance’.
Snyder is confident that the international situation is currently very favourable for Ukraine and that we should use this chance ‘as if it is the last one’. While Snyder thinks that Brexit will create grave problems for the Great Britain and might even lead to the country’s disintegration, he is optimistic about the European future of Ukraine.
— What is the best word to describe the outcomes of the UK’s referendum? Is it revanchism, idiotism, histeria or just a regular political process?
— First and the most important human capacity is the capacity to take things for granted. So, the British have all of these wonderful privileges and rights associated with Europe and they just don’t remember what it was like not to have these things. Now that they are going to need passports and visas to travel, now that their companies are going to have to renegotiate all of their agreements with all the other European countries — now they are going to remember all these things that they have lost. So human psychology is the first thing. We take things for granted.
Second, it is not history but myths about the history. The biggest myth about the history, and it is true in Ukraine, France or England, the biggest myth is that there was some moment, when the nation state worked very well. There is never any such moment. The nation state, if it is going to function, has to be part of something bigger. I am not against nation states. I think nation states are necessary, but there are not sufficient. This is why Ukraine has to function as a state, but also has to be a part of Europe, and this is what the English is going to find out. If this happens, if they leave the European Union, and then Great Britain collapses, which I think is very likely, they are going to be all by themselves, as a small nation state, and they are going to suffer.
And, of course, also the third thing — it is just normal for domestic politics. The reason why they had this referendum had to do with a disagreement inside the Conservative Party, which was resolved in a way and now, which is going to hurt millions of people.
— Don’t you think that Brexit might be a start of ‘not so bright’ future for Europe. I mean Finland, Germany — their economic and political nationalism? Can British referendum change Europe to such an extent?
— I agree with you completely that there is a rise of something that I would call national populism inside Europe. And the funny thing about national populism is that it is only possible inside Europe. You could only blame Brussels for all your problems, if you are a member of the European Union.
So, the phenomenon that one sees in England or in France, one does not see in Ukraine. It is illogical, it is impossible. I think though that if Britain really does leave the European Union, this will be a spectacularly negative lesson. I think in a way, it actually makes national populism more difficult, because someone like Nigel Farage in England — I think he was actually very happy with the European Union existing, because then he could blame everything on the European Union. What happens now when everything gets much worse? Whom do you blame then? Especially, when that was your idea to leave.
And I also think that it is going to make the life of someone like Marine Le Pen harder, because Marine Le Pen can say: "it is better to leave the European Union", but it is going to be harder I think for her to make a case once you actually have a negative example.
So, I think it is not going to lead to the end of the European Union. I do think it is going to lead to some kind of different Europe. What kind of Europe that would be, I think, here it is very important to stress that a lot of it is going to depend on choices that people make in the next year or the next two years, and it depends more on East Europeans than you realize, even more on the Ukrainians than you realize. Because if the East Europeans, the Poles, the Hungarians, said: "well, this just shows that European Union does not make any sense" — that is going to hurt the European Union, but if people of Eastern Europe say: "no, we still believe the European project has a future, just a different future" — that will help. So you have a certain amount of freedom and agency here.
— Do you think that Brussels, the EU Commission stopped understanding the feelings of the Europeans? The accusation that Brussels is not accountable was intensively used in Brexit campaign and in the very end influenced its outcomes.
— So, first of all, people do take part in the decisions that are made in Brussels, because the most important institution in Brussels is the European Council and the European Council is made up of ministers of the government of all of the member states. So, we should not think that there is some commission, mysterious commission, in Brussels that is completely separated, the commission matters but the European council is actually more important.
The second thing, I would say is that this is an institutional problem, because what I think is that the electorates in England, Spain, Poland — they need to believe that Europe belongs to them, and this is a problem. But I think it is not a problem of the Commission, the bureaucracy. I think it is a problem of the absence of democracy.
I think that Europe is at a vulnerable point now because it is not democratic enough. There is the Commission, but the Commission, as a bureaucracy is the size of like bureaucracy in the city of Kyiv, it is the size of the bureaucracy of the city of Boston, it is not some huge thing. It has to exist. What missing is democracy and the sense of a Europe that ‘belongs to us’, and I think that is why Europe is vulnerable now.
And, on immigration, I mean the main decisions on immigration were made by Angela Merkel and not by the European Union. We can say that Angela Merkel has made a mistake, and I think she probably did, but it is not the European Union.
— Is Brexit a referendum for independence and against bureaucracy? For freedom and against Brussels? Or it is for the past and against the future?
— Yes, this is what bothers me the most about it morally. If you are 70 years old, it does not really matter, whether Great Britain is Europe or not, but if you are 20 years old — it matters a lot. And the people who are young, people between 18 and 24, they voted to stay at 75% and so their desire to have a European future has been stopped by people who are older than they are and there is something fundamentally unfair about that and in that sense, it is a kind of victory of the past over the future but it is a victory of an imagined past over a real future because, as I said before — there never was a moment when Great Britain was alone. It was an empire, and then it integrated into Europe. It has never been alone and England has never been alone, and I think that when England is alone — that is the tragedy that when England is alone for those who are 70 and it is not going to matter, but for people who are 20 it is going to be a tragedy of their lifetimes.
— Could it have been personal mistake of David Cameron to organize this referendum? Why did the British elite decide to conduct a referendum in such a difficult moment?
— I think this is a good time to say that referendums in general are very bad idea, because how people vote in a referendum never has to do with what the question of what the referendum is. I mean, if I say "in three years let’s have a referendum on ‘What do you think about Ukrainian journalism?’" What you will really vote on in three years, is what matters to you in three years. And on that particular day, when the British referendum happened, it was a time when people were worried about immigration. It happened on a day, when the weather was bad. That has probably mattered and this is the problem with referendums that they are always about what happens on that particular day, they are never about the particular question.
In general, I think Europe need to stop all these referendums, because referendums generally lead you in places that you don’t wanna get. Anyway, this is a part of what has happened in Britain. When Cameron planned and promised the referendum, public opinion polls were saying 60% ‘stay’. So he probably never thought that he would have to have the referendum, and then he thought that if he is going to have it, they would win. Is it just a personal mistake of his? I do not think so. I think this it is a mistake of his political party, which was divided, seriously divided on the question of Europe. Also, it is true that the British population for a long time, partly thanks to the tabloids, has been very skeptical about Europe. So it is not just his mistake, but I think it was a mistake. It is a lesson not to let important matters of the whole future of the whole country be decided by the mood of people on a single day.
— What will be the consequences of Brexit for Ukraine?
— Ok, that a very good question! I think it is important for Ukrainians and everyone to realize, that the process of the European integration has been full of turning points, and crises and difficulties, and it has nevertheless continued and generally moved in a good direction. So if people look at Brexit and they say: "well, this means Europe is doomed", then you are helping it to be doomed.
I do not think this means that Europe is doomed. I think this means that Europe will change, but we do not know how.
I think it is very important for the Ukrainians to say: "the things that Europe stands for in general, like civil society, the rule of law, competitive markets, functional states — we are in favor of those general things. Yes, we like the rules of the game. If this or that country is a member of the EU, that is not so important. What is important, is that we like the general project" and I think saying that is good for Ukraine, but also I think it is good for Europe. I mean, Europe needs all the help it can get all the time and it may not seem so, but things that happen in the East also have a certain reflection back in the West.
— What do you think of Donald Trump’s success and his possible victory? It looks like in the diluted democracies, for example the one in the United States, people want to hear simple answers to a simple questions. This trend might come to Europe as well and it will be a triumph of the populism. What might be the reason behind this trend?
— When I look at Russia and Ukraine, I am not just interested in Russia and Ukraine, but am also interested in America, because I think of Russia and Ukraine as possible forms of democratic crisis. I do not think that things which happen in Russia, can’t happen in America. I think, that they can happen in America. I do not think that what happened in Ukraine, cannot happen in America. I think it can happen in America.
So, in general, I think that the biggest problem with democracy in the world is one that the ancient Greeks already predicted. The ancient Greeks said: "the problem with democracy is that it always becomes an oligarchy, so if you do not like oligarchy, you cannot have the democracy." And this is our problem in America.
The fundamental problem in America is that people can now give as much money to political parties, as they want to. And that means that the political parties have become more oligarchical and more corrupt. And the population sees that and so Americans are becoming more like Russians and more like Ukrainians. And they are very skeptical of the political leaders and they ask the same questions Russians and Ukrainians ask: "who stands behind that?"
You asked about Trump. Trump says: "it is all corrupt, everyone is corrupt, but at least I am personally corrupt. No one stands behind me. At least you know that it is just me." And that is a kind of argument that you can only make in a sort of oligarchical of society. In a way, it is what Poroshenko says: "I am my own oligarch, there is no one behind me." Anyway, you asked about Trump. I see Trump as the problem of all oligarchical populism. Like, once, people believe that all that matters is money and that everyone is corrupt. Then, the worst populists becomes successful. Now, that said, I should also say that I think he is going to get killed, he is going to get crushed in the elections this fall. I think he is going to be very soundly defeated.
— Some experts are blaming US in the Brexit. They believe British want to be with the ‘strong’ US, not the ‘weak’ EU.
— In reality, it is not Brussels. It is Europe. It is not Brussels, the Commission, it is Europe. You are either in Europe or not. And the second thing is that America is not an option. You cannot join to the American common market, It is just not possible. Britain cannot become the 51st state. The EU has the biggest one in the world, and we have the second biggest, but you cannot join ours. You can join the European one now, which is very special.
I think the British actually know that America is not an option and not an alternative to Europe at least economically. But the final thing is that American policy is very much the opposite. American policy was very explicitly to encourage the British to stay in the EU. I mean, Barack Obama specifically visited Great Britain to urge the British to vote to stay in the EU, which says a lot about our policy. American policy is not to break up Europe and to dominate it. The American policy encourages European integration. And this is a very good occasion to mention Russia and Russian policy. Russian policy was in favor of Brexit, and this is a very good example of the difference between America and Russia. American policy was explicitly that the United Kingdom should stay, and Russian policy was that Britain should go. And that is because America wants to have some kind of strong Europe as an ally, as a partner, and also as a sort of kindred spirit, whereas Russian policy is to try to break Europe up piece by piece.
— Do you think Ukraine will disappear from Europe’s radars now? Europeans with be busy with reforming their institutions, dealing with the UK, avoiding referendums in the other member states. Will Europe have time for Ukraine?
— I think Ukraine disappeared from the radars already before Brexit. There was a moment when Ukraine was a ‘crisis’, that’s been over for more than a year, and now there is a moment when Ukraine is a ‘problem’, and whether that will change depends upon Ukrainians themselves at this point.
It is really like 1989. There was a moment from 1989 to, say, 1991, where Poland and Hungary and Czechoslovakia were interesting for political reasons. And then there was a long moment when they had to do all these things to try to join the European Union and they were regarded as a problem, an annoyance, and everyone would talk about how difficult it would be to reform them and how it would take long time to do.
That where Ukraine is right now. You have been demoted from crisis to problem and once you have been defined as a ‘problem’, the only way to get out is by way of your own efforts. So, to put it a different way, I don’t want you to be a crisis again, because that means that Russia has invaded you another time or you had another Maidan. And I don’t want that to happen, I want there to be a peaceful and slow improvement in Ukraine. And the thing is, if there is peaceful, slow, gradual improvement and a rule of law in Ukraine, then the Europeans start to care because then there are conditions for foreign investment, then the political interest follows and then you have a chance of joining the European Union.
— Can Brexit destroy Great Britain? For example Scotland now wants to conduct its own referendum to stay in the EU. Will the UK disintegrate then?
— So, I have to stress right now, we don’t know what is going to happen. Many things are still possible, like that the Conservative Party in Britain, even though it organized a referendum, will somehow try to back out of the referendum. It is possible that another referendum will be organized in Britain. Many things are still possible at this point. We do not know what is going to happen. But if it does look certain that Great Britain is going to leave — I think, there will be another Scottish referendum, and I think this time, independence will win, and understandably, I mean I always thought Scottish independence was a bad idea, because why not be in Britain and Europe, but if you have to choose between Britain and Europe, it is understandable that the Scots would choose Europe. I think it is unfortunately, but the next natural step would be that Great Britain itself disintegrates. Any again that’s not surprising, because let’s remember — Great Britain as a country has never existed. It was an empire and then as it ceased to be an empire, it joined the European Union. So we have no reason to think that Great Britain is tenable as a country. It has never existed as a country. It was either an empire or part of the European Union. If it pulls out of the European Union, then it is going to a completely new unknown territory.
— During a conference in Lviv we, the participants, were offered to answer a question ‘what is the main reason of Ukraine’s problems?’ Is it Communism, Holodomor, lack of leadership, insufficient support of the EU, Soviet heritage? What do you think?
— Well, I think all five points are really the same thing. Yes, the Soviet inheritance is a major problem in all kinds of ways: the Soviet inheritance discourages individual responsibility. The Soviet inheritance is one of vertical patron-client relationships which work in a Soviet-style state and worked in Soviet Ukraine, but don’t allow for pluralism or economic development.
It’s true that in the 1930s, many of the best people on the territory of this country were killed. And in the famine very often it was the best people who died first. In the terror, it was very often that the most interesting Ukrainians who were killed and then there was WW2, which was another demographic horror for Ukraine.
So those things all matter and they are all part of a period of history, which I take to be exceptional — the Soviet period. Up until the Soviet period, Ukrainian history was actually fairly normal by East European standards. The Soviet period was something exceptional. But, now the question is not what’s the biggest problem from the past. Now the question is how do we get over the inheritance of the Soviet period finally. You know, people say the natural final step of communism is capitalism. The natural final step of communism is oligarchy. And the question that is the main problem of Ukraine is "how you get over the present state of corruption to something new, to something which is normal by European standards."
— Another question that is inspired by Lviv conference: what should Ukraine do primarily? Should it fight corruption, support its economy, change political system, tame oligarchs, find a true leader?
— You see, history is not multiple choice. Many of those things are connected to each other. And about ‘the strong leader’ — I only want to say that you cannot wait for a strong personality because a strong personality is a question of luck and in general in our day and age, when people talk about how they are strong leaders — that is a bad sign.
It generally means that they are trying to distract you, that they are populists, you know. You cannot wait for a personality. You have to fix the institutions, and what you have to do is change the rules of the game so that the people who are in small and medium sized businesses can have a fair shot at doing better. That’s the basic question.
So it is all of the above but do not wait for the strong leader, the institutions have to be fixed and corruption has to be brought to an end. Or, to put it in a different way, some of the people who are important in Ukraine now, they have to make compromises and become less important themselves, that is an important stage in the history of any country.
The great industrialists of the United States in the late XIX century, they all became unbelievably wealthy. They were what we call ‘oligarchs’ today and then they gave a lot of money to charities and agreed that they would become less important in the political system. That was a very important moment and that is something that has to happen in Ukraine. It is the rules, but also some people have to accept playing by the rules.
— You said that Ukraine is interesting to you and that our country has potential, what is this potential? What should we develop and use primarily: education, culture, values, geographic position, natural resources?
— I am a historian and the reason why I find Ukraine so interesting is because there are so many unanswered historical questions, so many sources that have yet to be read, so many ways that Ukraine is a typical European history but more so, more profoundly.
As far as Ukraine needs to have a normal and a more successful future, it has to reconcile the already educated and capable population with its own potential. So, you have huge educated elite and a huge capable working class, which are not living up to their potential, radically so. That is the main thing. Education is important, culture is important, values are important, but the main thing is to change the rules. So that people can live up to their potential, not only economically and make more money, but also so they have better lives and feel better about themselves.
I mean that is the funny thing: Ukrainian society is actually in pretty good shape from some points of view. Education is at high levels, people form civil society organizations. So, in many ways the society is in pretty good shape. The problem is with the rules and people need to believe these rules to be fair. I realize I am repeating myself, but that really is the main problem.
— Do you think this is Ukraine’s last chance?
— Professional historians never speak of the ‘last chances’. Nevertheless, the political environment is good and you should use it as if this chance is the last one.
Pavel Sheremet, Ukrayinska Pravda