How real is the risk of disintegration? The lessons of the Soviet collapse
Soviet disintegration was perceived as unthinkable in 1985 and declared to have been inevitable in 1995. This leap from the 'unthinkable' to the 'inevitable' makes it a useful footnote to the current discussions on the future of Europe.
In 1992, the world woke up without the Soviet Union on the map. One of the world's two superpowers had collapsed without a war, invasion or any other catastrophic development. Although the Soviets had been in irreversible decline since the 1970s nothing had predetermined their collapse at the end of the 20th century. In 1985, 1986 and even in 1989 the disintegration of the Soviet Union was as unconceivable for the analysts of the day as the prospect of EU disintegration is for today's experts. The Soviet empire was too big to fail, too stable to collapse, and had already survived too much turbulence. But what a difference a decade can make. What was perceived as unthinkable in 1985 was declared to have been inevitable in 1995. And it is exactly this twist of fate, this leap from the 'unthinkable' to the 'inevitable', that makes the experience of Soviet disintegration a useful footnote to the current discussions on the European crisis and the choices that European leaders face.
Politics in turmoil
After all, the present crisis has powerfully demonstrated that the risk of the EU disintegrating is not just a rhetorical device, a toy monster used by scared politicians to enforce austerity on their unhappy voters. It is not only the European economies, but also Europe's politics that are in turmoil. The financial crisis has sharply reduced the life expectancy of governments, regardless of their political colour, and has made room for the rise of populist and protest parties. The public mood is best described as a combination of pessimism and anger. The latest Future of Europe survey, funded by the European Commission and published in April this year, demonstrates that while the majority of Europeans agree that the EU is a good place to live, their confidence in the economic performance of the Union and its capacity to play a major role in global politics has declined. More than six out of ten Europeans are convinced that the lives of those who are children today will be more difficult than the lives of people of their own generation. More troubling, almost 90 per cent of Europeans see a big gap between what the public wants and what their governments do. Only a third of Europeans feel that their vote counts in the EU and only 18 percent of Italians and 15 percent of Greeks feel that their vote counts even in their own countries. So, how unthinkable is disintegration? Is it not true that the survival of the EU will depend on the ability of leaders to manage the political, economic and psychological factors that were in play as the Soviet Union collapsed?
The Soviet order "collapsed like a house of cards," wrote the eminent historian Martin Malia, "because it has always been a house of cards." The EU is not a house of cards. In order to make sense of the lessons of the Soviet collapse, we should always keep in mind how dramatically different the Soviet and the EU projects are. But while the EU was never seduced by the temptations of communism and central planning, it is not immune to the vice of complexity. The EU is the most sophisticated political puzzle that history has known. Walter Bagehot observes that "the best reason why Monarchy is a strong government is, that it is an intelligible government." So, the mass of mankind understands it. The EU, by contrast, is an unintelligible government that the mass of Europeans cannot understand. They cannot grasp how the Union functions and find it even more difficult to grasp what its collapse would mean. In the case of the Soviet Union, collapse meant that one state disappeared from the maps and a dozen new states came into being, and it meant the end of the communist system. But the EU is not a state. Even if the project fails, nothing would change on the maps. Even if the EU disintegrates, most, if not all the member states would remain market democracies. So, how can we define disintegration? How can we conceptualise it? Could we speak of disintegration if one or two countries left the eurozone, or even the Union itself? Would the end of the euro mean the end of the EU? Is the decline of the EU's global influence an indicator of the collapse of the project? Would the reverse of some of the major achievements of European integration, such as restricting the free movement of people or abolishing the European Court of Human Rights, be enough to declare that the EU is history?
The Soviet experience offers some useful hints for answering these questions.
When it comes to judging how real the risk of disintegration is, economists should not be trusted too much. There are good reasons why economists exercise such a powerful influence over decision-makers today, and there is no doubt that they are ready to offer advice on the basis of which politicians can act. But when it comes to collapse, economists have a blind spot. The Soviet collapse teaches us that just because the economic costs of disintegration would be very high, this is not a reason for it not to happen. To believe that the EU cannot disintegrate simply because it would be too costly offers only weak reassurance that the Union will continue to be stable. Paradoxically, the belief that the Union cannot disintegrate, backed by the economists and shared by Europe's political class, is one of the risks of disintegration. The last years of the Soviet Union are a classical manifestation of this dynamic. The perception that disintegration is 'unthinkable' could encourage policy makers to try to push dangerous policies under the assumption that 'nothing really bad can happen' in the long term, and foster the idea that anti-EU policies or rhetoric might even be helpful in the short term. The Soviet collapse is the most powerful demonstration that the disintegration of the EU need not be the result of a victory of anti-EU forces over pro-EU forces. More likely, it will be the unintended consequence of the growing dysfunction of the system and the elites' misreading of the political dynamics in their own societies. Reflecting on the Soviet collapse, the eminent historian Stephen Kotkin is convinced that the real question to be asked is, "why the Soviet elite destroyed its own system?" The Soviet collapse is the best demonstration that the rise of anti-integration forces can be the outcome, rather than the cause of collapse.
The Soviet experience is also a powerful demonstration that even more than the lack of reform, misguided reforms can lead to disintegration. In times of crisis, politicians are in search of a 'silver bullet' and it is quite often this that becomes the cause of death. It was Gorbachev's failure to make sense of the nature of the Soviet system - it could be preserved, but not reformed - and his misguided belief in the superiority of the socialist system that were at the root of the Soviet collapse. The European Union has its own history of trying to come up with one brave policy meant to solve almost all of its problems. The idea to hold referenda on the European Constitution, which backfired so spectacularly in France and the Netherlands, illustrates the dangers of such a course of action.
The second lesson from an analysis of the Soviet experience of disintegration is that in the absence of war or other extreme circumstances, the major risk to a project is not destabilisation on the periphery, but revolt in the centre. This does not mean that a crisis on the periphery cannot be infectious; it only means that the fate of the project will be decided in the centre. It was Russia's decision to eradicate the Union, not the ever-present desire of the Baltic republics to run away from it, that decided the fate of the Soviet state. And it is Germany's view of what is happening in the European Union that will more dramatically affect the future of the European project than the troubles of the Greek or Spanish economies. When the winners of integration start to view themselves as its major victims, then politicians should be sure that big trouble is just around the corner. For the moment Europeans have no reason to doubt Germany's devotion to the EU, but at the same time we are witness to the horrifying inability of the southern debt-ridden countries to 'translate' their concerns into German, and a growing failure of Germany to 'translate' its proposed solutions into the local languages of most of the other member states. It is not the divergence of interests, but the lack of empathy that should bother us most.
The third lesson is that if the dynamics of disintegration prevailed, the collapse of the Union would look more like a 'bank run' than a revolution. Paradoxically, the very fact that the EU was, and to a great extent still is, an elite project means that the real risk for its survival comes not so much from the anger of the public, but from the (mis) calculations of the elites. In Kotkin's apt observation in the case of the Soviet Union, "it was the central elite, rather than the independence movements of the periphery, that cashiered the Union." The risk is that the national elites will abandon the Union for fear of losing control, while the majority of people will remain loyal to it. The very moment that national elites start to question the future prospects of the Union, will be the moment they start to act in a way that will contribute to its collapse. The most important factor affecting the survival chances of the Union will not be the people's disappointment, but the elites' trust in its capacity to deal with problems.
The last and most disturbing lesson from a study of the Soviet collapse is that when disintegration threatens, political actors should bet on flexibility and constrain their natural urges towards rigidity and long-lasting solutions. Unfortunately, what we see in Europe today is a drive for rigidity. In order to get out of the current status quo of policies without politics in Brussels and politics without policies in nations, Germany, among others, is favouring a political constellation that can be best described as 'democracy without choices'. European decision makers are trying to save the Union by opting for policy solutions that tie the hands of national governments and radically constrain the choices of the public. Voters in countries like Italy and Greece can change governments, but they cannot change policies: economic decision-making has de facto been taken out of electoral politics. The expectations are that the new politics of fiscal discipline will reduce political pressure on the EU. But while experts can agree or disagree on the pros and cons of the austerity policy package, what is more important is that the failure of rigidity will automatically accelerate the crisis, making the survival of the Union more difficult. Ten years ago, European decision-makers decided not to introduce a mechanism for leaving the common currency with the goal of making the break-up of the eurozone impossible. Now we know that this decision actually makes the eurozone more vulnerable.
Some decades ago, the German poet and dissident Wolf Biermann wrote, "I can only love, what I am also free to leave." The current strategy of European policy makers - of favouring policies that make the price of exit unbearably high - can end up increasing rather than limiting the risk of disintegration. The Soviet collapse teaches us that in times of major crisis, the popular response to 'there is no alternative' is that any alternative is better. Paradoxically, flexibility is the best chance for survival.